Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Permitting LED Signs - Part 3: Research the Code Yourself

This post is a continuation of my Permitting LED Signs series. Part 1 can be viewed here and Part 2 here

In this post, I will focus on obtaining and researching the code yourself. This will take a bit longer than calling the city but it can allow you to learn things that the city planners may not know, or just not tell you. I have personally come across this multiple times, usually in larger cities where I had to correct the planner on the code and confirm the right information.

Google is a major resource when getting this done. Be sure to get all the information listed below before diving into the sign code. It will save time in the long run.

1. Determine your property’s Zoning District:
Many cities now have zoning maps online. They are not always up to date, but serve as a good guide. Find your city website and look for any link that has to do with Zoning or Planning. This will usually guide you to the zoning map. If you have trouble, you can always just google “zoning map” and “city name”, or call the city as detailed in Part 2. Most maps will have a Key, that will let you know your zoning code. (like GC for General Commercial, or R1 for Residential - Type 1).

2. Determine who regulates your sign code:
When you look at the zoning map, you may find that your property isn’t actually in the city boundaries. You will then need to contact the County and determine your Zoning District and get the sign code and regulations. Counties usually have a website too with this information.

3. Get your property “Plat Map”:
This is a map of your property lines and measurements. It can usually be found by calling your County Tax Assessor/Collector or going to the website and doing a “property search”. Many counties have a direct link to online mapping services (sometimes call GIS) that will allow you to search a live/updated property map.

You are now ready to get the sign code.The City or County websites will usually have a link in the Zoning, Development, or Land Use section. Search google for “Sign Code ‘city name’ “ or “ Municipal Code”.
There are also two very common code providers online. Both sites have many codes hosted and are used by many cities to host the code directly.

Most codes have 3-5 main areas that deal with the sign code specifically:

  • General Regulation.
  • Rules Specific for Zoning Districts
  • Rules Specific for “Special Districts” like historic areas or “downtown” areas.
  • Prohibited Signs.
  • Exemptions and Misc. Regulations.

Different cities organize these differently, some examples:

Example #1 Some may have a large General Regulation section, that covers every type of sign. It will only list “exceptions” to the main regulation for each zoning district. Each zoning district has its own “prohibited” signs section.

Example  #2 They might have a very small General Section but each zoning district has a full description of what is allowed, and what is not allowed. It also has a Special Exceptions section where certain entities are allowed different regulations. Typically this will apply to Churches and Schools.

Example #3 Some codes only include specific sign regulations for specific Zoning districts. Any districts not listed falls under the General Regulations.

I always start with the prohibited section. Sometimes this only applies to certain districts, but sometime it can apply to the entire city. Unfortunately some places do try to prohibit LED signs altogether. You can save time by reading this section first.

Read through the General Section, and your specific regulations for your zoning district. You are trying to answer the following questions:

  • What types of signs are allowed?
    • Common terms for general signage:
      • Monument Signs: Low lying signs, usually with a wide base no visible pole or structure. Think neighborhood subdivision entrance sign.
      • Pole Signs, or Pylon Signs: Signs on poles, usually higher up off the ground.
      • Building or Roof Sign: Identification signs mounted to the building itself.
      • Multi-Tenant Signs: Signs with multiple business advertised. Think strip mall, or shopping center.
    • Common terms for LED signs:
      • Electronic Message Center
      • Electronic Changeable Copy Signs
      • LED Message Center
      • Electronic Marqee
      • Scrolling Message Center
      • Scrolling Sign
  • Are there any specific restrictions to LED signs?
    • This can be display time, animation, or brightness restrictions. Some cities require a “Special Use Agreement” that you must sign, agreeing to adhere to the restrictions.
  • How is the allowable surface area calculated?
    • This is usually done by the amount of street frontage your property has. This is the reason you have the “Plat Map” to get an official measurement of your street frontage. Typically this is something like: “...2 square ft allowed, per linear foot of street frontage, not to exceed 50 square feet...”
  • What is counted as “sign” surface area, and what is counted as just “structure”?
    • See my post in Part 2 regarding this. Signs vary greatly in shape size. How does your city measure oddly shaped signs?
  • How high can the sign be?
  • How many signs (of each type) can you have on the property?
    • If you have more than one “street frontage” you are often allowed signs on each frontage.
  • Where can the signs be located?
  • How far back from the property line does the sign need to be?
    • This is often called setback. It is usually in the General Section. If you can’t find it, ask the city planner.
  • If LED signs are not allowed, is there a variance process?

Often, the code will reference other sections like: “...these signs are allowed per section 11.202.3, with the following restrictions...” This can be tedious, but stick to it and read through the sections.

Write down each section number and reference that pertains to your situation so you can quickly find the information later. The Copy and Paste functions on your computer can be very helpful with this. As you see a section that pertains to you, just copy and paste the section into a word doc, or email. This will help you greatly if you need to call the city to confirm something, or verify your information.

I recommend to always verify with the city planner. Write down any questions as you are reading, so you can be prepared when you call. Most planners are very nice and easy to talk to, but as I said in the previous posts, they MUST give you a specific reference in the code for any restrictions. It is not rude to ask nicely for these references, even if it sounds like the planner may not want to take the time to look it up. Make sure you are 100% comfortable with the answers, and your understanding of the code. Its worth the extra time to talk with them to make sure you are clear on everything.

Remember to always be polite. Arguing with a planner on how the code was made, or why it was written a certain way will not do you any good. Get the facts, and if you disagree with the regulations bring it up with the city council. If you feel that the planner isn’t very familiar with the sign code, politely ask to speak with someone who is.

Getting into the sign code itself can be a challenge but it is worth the extra effort to make sure you know the regulations for your property. Hopefully this series has provided good insight into the task, and can be a resource for a variety of people in a variety of situations.

* 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 www.vantageled.com 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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