Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Permitting LED Signs - Part 1: General Overview

I’ve been working on a lot of permit research lately, so I felt a concise guide to permits (if that is even possible with any regulation) would be a great resource for those who are interested in getting an LED sign, and even for those who are working in the industry and are looking for some tips.

LED Signs are a relatively new product, but they are becoming more common with businesses choosing to replacing manual copy boards, and billboard companies switching over to “Digital Billboards”. Technology evolves very quickly, unfortunately state and local regulations do not. This means it is often a challenge to determine if your sign is permissible. However, there are some fundamental tools you can use to get past the bureaucratic hurdles if you're willing to talk to the right people, and spend some time researching the actual code.

Because LED signs didn’t exist or were in their infancy when many sign codes were written, much of the regulation depends on different interpretations of what defines an LED sign in the existing code. Are they manual “changeable letter boards” or “flashing signs” like the old movie theater using light bulbs, or are they “lighted signs” that happen to be able to change the message regularly? Fortunately many local governments are now revising the codes to include specifics on LED signs but there are many who are still use outdated sign code.

Additionally, there is no standard term for LED Signs in the industry. They have been called Electronic Message Centers, LED Displays, LED Signs, LED Message Centers, LED Reader Boards, Electronic Reader Boards, Digital Reader Boards, and host of other combinations. This can make it hard when searching through the city code, even when it’s available online.

Another factor is the distinction between billboards (Off-Site Advertising), and regular business signage (On-Site Advertising). The code that governs each varies greatly in most cities and counties. This series of articles will focus on regular business signage, but can still be useful for those researching Digital Billboard permits.

There are (4) major steps that need to be taken when researching. I will go more into the details in the next series of articles, but a general guide is below:

1. Find out your zoning district.
Every city/county has Zoning Districts that have their own rules on signage. Business “districts” will usually allow more signage options, while residential districts usually restrict signage all together, unless your are a school, church, or charitable organization.
Call or go to your City/County website and look for a “Zoning Map”. Usually available in the Planning, Zoning, or Land Use areas of the website. A google search for “city name” zoning map often provides good results.

2. Get your property line locations and measurements.
Many sign codes base the allowable size of your sign on the length of your property line “street frontage” and require a certain setback from the property line for installation.
You may already have a survey or “Plat map” of your property. If not, these records are kept by your county property tax assessors office. Most offices have a website where you can search a property address. The results will usually have a link to an online version of the “Plat map”. You can always call the assessor's office directly if you have any problems.

3. Review your sign code.
Many cities post there sign code online. Some host it locally, others use websites like or
Researching sign code can be a challenging task. Keep the following points in mind when reading through the code.
  • Sign code is usually in the Zoning, Planning, Development, or Land Use section of the main city code.
  • If the code is in electronic form it is usually searchable. Searching for Sign, or Signage will usually point you to the correct section.
  • Most code presents the overall code first, then prohibited signs, then specific restrictions for each Zoning District. It’s always a good thing to look in the prohibited section first, to save you some time.
  • There is usually a “Definitions” section in the code. If the code says “flashing signs are prohibited” you will want to look into the definitions section to determine if LED signs are considered in this group. If not, they may have a separate definition for LED signs. (see my comment on “terms” earlier in this article).

4. Verify
You can always call the city directly. Ask to speak with a city planner and let them know you are researching the permissibility of an LED sign on your property. Remember that anything the planner says about the restrictions must be backed up by a specific part of the code. You have the right to politely ask them for the code reference for any restriction they mention. Planners are also human and can make mistakes. Verify the information you receive, and if you feel like the planner is not familiar with the sign code, ask to speak to someone who is. Always be VERY polite.

I will go into more details on calling the city and researching the code yourself in Part 2 of this series. Hopefully this will be helpful to those that might be afraid to jump into the code themselves or are stuck in the process somewhere, looking for a solution.

-Scott Hofheins

* I welcome ALL constructive comments. Please feel free to comment and add anything I’ve missed, or additional tips you may have regarding this topic. Please visit for many other resources, white papers, and of course: Great looking LED signs!

** All posts/thoughts/writings are strictly the viewpoint of me and me alone and do not reflect nor speak for Vantage LED’s beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, etc. unless specifically stated.

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