Sign codes are written to protect the public health, safety, and welfare while remaining reasonable in light of Constitutional requirements that time, place and manner of display be controlled in a content-neutral manner. When you apply for a permit or variance, a basic understanding of the following points and operative phrases will help.
Governmental regulation of signs falls into two main categories:
- Material, electrical, and structural
- Land use (zoning) issues
Material, electrical, and structural
- An electric or internally illuminated sign is wired to receive power from an electrical utility source and must meet certain weight and wind load standards.
- Most sign companies laboratory test the electrical features on a sign. The laboratories used for testing include Electrical Testing Laboratory and Underwriters Laboratories. A label from a testing laboratory means that the sign has met electrical standards.
- If your sign is built locally, electrical components may be checked by a reputable and certified local electrical inspector.
- A sign has several structural components. For a ground-mounted sign, these components are the cabinet and the poles. A building-mounted sign will also have a cabinet to hold the sign faces. Structural components must pass inspections.
Sign companies will usually obtain the necessary permits and install your sign in accordance with the local code(s). Records concerning sign installation should be kept on file to verify that the sign meets minimum code standards.
Application for Permits and Variances
- Location of your business is controlled by a local zoning or comprehensive land use code. Placement and the physical parameters of your sign are controlled either by a section of the zoning code or by a separate "sign code."
- Most communities have an official, generally in the planning department, to whom you must go to obtain your initial application to construct and place your sign. Usually, the permitting criteria will be very specific, with ample instructions on how to complete the application.
If it appears that a size, height, lighting or placement requirement would not allow your sign to be easily visible or readable, you should apply for a "variance from" or "exception to" that requirement. However, it is generally safe to say that 95% of signs in the United States were built and placed pursuant to an "over the counter" permit.
Approach a variance by illustrating the benefit the sign will bring to the land use planning scheme, not to the business. For example, if you are in an older building, and seeking to renovate, point out how your proposed sign will contribute to revitalization of the district as a whole, thereby promoting a healthy tax base. A well-designed, optimally visible, and appropriately-placed sign fosters a partnership with the municipality and the chance to create financial opportunities for both the business and the community.
Another concern that may give rise to the need for a variance is that enforcement of the code may, in your case, create a signing deficiency in that the sign cannot be detected in time for drivers trying to find your business to safely respond under existing roadway configurations (e.g., numbers of lanes) and designated speeds. Traffic safety is always a foremost community concern. If an ordinance, as applied to your sign, would prevent adequate legibility, readability or conspicuity, thereby compromising traffic safety, then the reason for a variance is expanded beyond your immediate communication needs.
Almost all jurisdictions will consider a variance if the sign is not adequately sized.
Many jurisdictions are amenable to a variance that would permit the renovation or retrofit of a building facade in order to enhance a district theme.