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Law Abiding

Stay On Top of Signage Laws and Regulations

By Amber E. Watson


There is a lot of information to keep track of when running a business. It is easy to overlook sign legislation. However, to avoid costly mistakes and customer frustration, it is important to keep up with city and state mandated laws. Many print service providers (PSPs) creating window graphics, building wraps, and billboards must pay attention to size, media, and ink depending on the intended location of a project.


Affinity groups, such the International Sign Association (ISA) and the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA), do their part to instruct and advise members about the latest requirements. Still, it is up to each individual to stay abreast of state and city laws.


In the Zone

Zoning ordinances vary between states and municipalities. Digital graphics providers, like all sign companies that install exterior signage, must contend with multiple codes and interpretations. It is not uncommon to find certain sized banners allowed in one town, and outlawed or severely restricted in the next.


“Nationally, there are more than 39,000 jurisdictions on the local and county level that regulate outdoor signs and displays,” shares David L. Williamson, a Cincinnati, OH-based attorney with a private practice focused on sign law. “This is daunting when a customer orders multiple banners. But it is important to pay attention to the details. A sign or banner without the proper permit is illegal and subject to removal by a jurisdiction.”


On-premise signs are regulated almost entirely at the local level of government, while off-premise signs, such as billboards, can be controlled by local, state, and federal. The federal government provides a basic regulatory framework for outdoor signage, and states and municipalities are then free to further regulate. 


Williamson explains that zoning codes are usually set up under state enabling laws, but it is at the local level that the actual codes are written and enforced. “An exception would be the regulation of off-premise displays along major highways where state and federal regulation is more prominent,” he adds.


Billboard regulations are particularly tricky to navigate because multiple layers of government heavily regulate them. “Federal law establishes a national regulatory framework for billboards, including size, lighting, and spacing; state and local laws also regulate outdoor advertising. Permitting requirements vary and often cause confusion for PSPs that do installations across the country,” says Marcia Y. Kinter, VP, government and business information, SGIA.


In regards to on-premise signs, “it is just the nature of our system of government, that localities have responsibility for land use laws and often choose to regulate signs depending on what sort of community they want to be and what their needs are,” explains David Hickey, VP, government relations, ISA. ISA tries to provide local officials with as much research and fact-based evidence about signs so that, no matter where the city, sign codes are developed objectively and reasonably for the benefit of businesses and communities. 


Becoming Involved

Clearwater, FL-based Sign-Age of Tampa Bay, Inc. specializes in the design, wide format printing, and installation of vehicle wraps, trade show display graphics, event signage, and interior and exterior architectural signage.


Michael Quigley, VP, operations, Sign-Age, admits that the shop’s efforts to stay informed about state and city mandated signage laws are ad hoc because they are seldom tapped into the planning phase of signage ordinance writing or revisions. This is a common sentiment expressed by other sign shop owners. “We typically become aware of an ordinance change when we meet with governmental agency plan reviewers at the beginning of a project,” explains Quigley.


The industry is becoming more proactive in this area. Through the efforts of various associations, outreach programs targeting city planners have taken root in the past few years, and the results to date are encouraging. Shops are also kept current on important Americans with Disabilities Act signage regulations.


Design Center Signs of Tyler, TX offers a full spectrum of services including design, prototyping, site audits/surveys, permitting, project management, installation, electrical sign service/repair, custom signs, neon, LED electronic message center displays, and vinyl graphics and wraps.


It remains current on regulations as an active member of the Greater DFW Sign Association and the Texas Sign Association (TSA), of which Paul Ingle, VP, Design Center Signs, is president. The shop is also a member of ISA and the United States Sign Council.


Through TSA and ISA, sign owners participate in continuing education courses for municipal personnel to increase awareness of fair and equitable sign codes. Credit for these courses keeps licensing and education requirements up to date. TSA employs a sign advocate to assist cities as they consider future code changes or amendments. Each of these associations and members work collectively to establish mutually beneficial relationships with local and state legislators and disseminate news and law changes within a company.


Follow the Rules

There is no one regulation that is necessarily more important than another. “Non-compliance with one item often translates into project delays and higher costs,” cautions Quigley. Sign-Age works hard to understand and follow the parameters to avoid customer frustration and successfully manage the expectations of a sign project.


As a licensed electrical sign contractor in TX, Design Center Signs complies with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration impacts safety education and the training of employees. “There are other county and city regulations that are often more stringent than state requirements, especially for disposal of waste/hazardous substances, recycling, and reclamation,” shares Ingle.


Ingle also shares that many of the large sign projects—massive building banners or LED electronic message center displays—cannot be produced due to regulations like zoning, setback, right of way issues, proximity to overhead power lines, square footage, function regulations, or bans on certain types of signs or banners.


On occasion, Sign-Age also faces the difficult decision to drop a project because the cost of permitting and installing to meet code requirements far exceeds the cost of the signage. “It is sometimes hard for a customer to get their head around this,” shares Quigley. “On the other hand, knowing the regulations ahead of time can keep a customer out of trouble with sign ordinances and still get the job done.”


Artwork impacts what can and cannot be placed in a specific zone. Sign-Age, for instance, recently did work for a major healthcare provider. It created a 400-foot construction fence banner, but had to drop the logo from the artwork and focus on lifestyle pictures of services provided instead. “A picture of a mom holding her newborn is art, while the hospital logo is signage,” explains Quigley.


Stay Informed

With thousands of jurisdictions across America, each with their own unique sign code, keeping track is a challenge. “The sheer number of sign codes, lack of sufficient public notice about when they are revised, and the often inadequate development process are tricky for sign companies to keep on top of and deal with,” says Hickey.


It is critical that sign companies continue to work with local officials to develop cooperative, trusting relationships, and participate in the sign code process.


Through more involvement and research, PSPs gain a better understanding of important rules and regulations affecting the sign industry.


Sep2013, Digital Output

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