Don’t get caught off guard by sign ordinances and regulations

By Robbie Hunt
Commercial and Architectural Sign Advisor, Sign-a-Rama Duluth

My client put her head in her hands, exasperated, as I read to her the list of things she could not do with the signs for her new restaurant. The list was courtesy of an architectural and signage “Design Review Board” overseeing the mall district where she had just bought a freestanding building on a highly visible corner lot.

These stipulations touched on every part of her signage including the size, color, type, material, and installation method. Given that signage is a vital tool in establishing branding and presence, her angst was justified.

Negotiations between my client and the review board ensued, and eventually she was granted a variance on a few items, but not without a significant investment of time, and a delayed opening of her restaurant. Even with the variance, her signage will be mandated in a way she feels will be restrictive to her business.

Unfortunately, I have seen this scenario many times. For busy retail business owners focused on other aspects of lease and land negotiations, it’s not uncommon to totally overlook signage requirements and restrictions.

Sign ordinances enacted by local jurisdictions and sign restrictions mandated by lease holders or other third parties typically are well meaning. The intent behind most ordinances and restrictions is to maintain an aesthetically pleasing look, to encourage the effective use of signage, to promote economic development, and to find equal and impartial ways to manage a plethora of signage needs from the commercial, industrial, residential and public safety arenas.

Sometimes sign ordinances and restrictions, while well meaning, are not constructed with a full knowledge of the impact to the business owner, sign contractor, or ultimately the consumer. Occasionally a jurisdiction or governing body, after hearing from the business community, or witnessing businesses locating to other cities perceived as more “signage” friendly, will modify their ordinances.

But for the most part, once “set in stone,” these ordinances and regulations become difficult to circumvent without the use of a variance procedure, or the legal system. Therefore, it is not only wise, but vital, for anyone involved in the locating of retail space to understand the ordinances and regulations governing a site. Tenant reps, property managers, brokers, leasing agents and business owners are not exempt from understanding the impact local ordinances and regulations have on signage possibilities.

The following are the most common places where signage is regulated by governmental bodies or interested third parties:

County/City Sign Ordinances: Local sign ordinances are the most significant source of regulation for retail businesses. These ordinances regulate the size, and sometimes type, of signage available to a retail location. Sign sizes typically are restricted based upon the store square footage, linear feet of road frontage, or a percentage of the total front wall area. Within county and city ordinances, there are also specific ordinances regarding:

  • Zoning Districts: Signage among districts with the same zoning (i.e. C1, C2, etc.) can even be different.
  • Historic or other Specialty Districts: Historic districts typically restrict electrical signage, require signage to fit into the look and feel of the specific era, and as a general rule, are smaller than in other districts. Specialty districts, such as malls or other shopping plazas, will restrict size and look in order to maintain a consistent look in the area.
  • Overlay Districts: Overlay districts that encompass specific geographic areas (i.e., popular highways, lakes or other waterways, entertainment venues or other attractions) will typically have signage requirements that identify the area as part of the district.
  • Community Improvement Districts (CIDs): As part of the overall plan, some CIDs will mandate new signage as part of the improvement plan.

Restrictive Zoning: If a parcel or lot was granted any type of zoning variance, check to make sure that variance does not restrict signage apart from the county/city ordinances.

Landlord Requirements: Many times hidden in the wording of the lease are specifics about the signage required by the landlord. Typically, landlords require written approval before the issuance of a sign permit or signs to be installed.

Interested Third Parties: Among third party enforcers are design review boards, local business associations, and franchises. If located within any kind of specialty or overlay district, you can be almost certain there is a third party design review board or business association that will govern signage. These operate much like a homeowners’ association, and usually have enforcement powers. And franchise operators will always require franchisees to maintain corporate signage standards.

Most reputable sign companies are familiar with local ordinances. For a reasonable fee, they can assist you in your research of these other, lesser-known regulatory bodies. In the pursuit of the perfect retail location, don’t be caught off guard by ordinances and regulations impacting your signage – or your success!

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Author: CREW Atlanta

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