Conversion of Memphis Billboard to Electronic Sparks Debate

A legal, nonconforming billboard in Memphis, Tennessee was improperly granted a  permit to be converted into an electronic billboard, reports the Memphis Business Journal. Nearly two decades ago, the Memphis City Council declared that all billboards not located on a "highway" were nonconforming. The billboard in question is located on a city street. However, a Circuit Court ruled that the Memphis sign code is "vague." To read the full article, go to 

Iowa City Newspaper Editorial Lauds Projecting Signs Following CoSign Workshop at the American SIgn Museum

Nate Kaeding is the Iowa City Downtown District's retail development coordinator. He and other representatives from his city came to the American Sign Museum on February 20-21, 2017 to attend the CoSign workshop. CoSign is a program that connects merchants, designers and fabricators in order to create new and better signs, and promote economic development in communities.

Nate wrote a guest editorial for the Iowa City Press-Citizen's February 21 edition under a headline of "2017 is the year of the projecting sign." He writes abut the importance of having appropriate signage, and how Iowa City has changed its sign code to allow this. A portion of his editorial reads: " The new creative signage will enhance the aesthetic and mood of downtown and add to our unique sense of place. This all will equate to more repeat customers at the stores, word-of-mouth marketing and economic vitality."

To read the entire editorial, go to  

FASI Article about Wagner v. Garfield Heights Published in NBM Newsletter

Wade Swormstedt, the Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry, wrote an article about the Wagner v. Garfield Heights court case, and it was published in the January 31 NBM newsletter. The final ruling, which disallowed a portion of the Garfield Heights sign code that allowed some temporary signs to be bigger than political signs, was based on the 2015 Reed v. Gilbert SCOTUS decision.

Swormstedt said, "The sweeping ramifications of the Reed decision will be seen for years to come. Reed is easily the most important SCOTUS case related to signage since 1980. And this summer, for the second consecutive year, the American Planning Association will devote a session to the Reed aftermath at its annual convention."

To read the full article, go to

Lake County (IN) Rescinds Political-sign Duration Ban

Lake County (IN) had a provision in its sign code that disallowed the posting of political signs more than 30 days prior to the election. However, in light of last year's Reed v. Gilbert SCOTUS decision, a county attorney determined the provision is unconstitutional, according to an August 18 article in the northwest Indiana Post-Tribune, written by Carrie Napoleon. Consequently, the county had rescinded that provision. To read the full story online, go to

Brentwood, TN, Loosens Restrictive Sign Code

On July 25, 2016, Brentwood, TN, slightly "modernized" what it views as a "very restrictive" sign code to allow car signs and sandwich boards on a limited basis. Cars visible from the public right-of-way, with attached signs, are limited to parking in one spot for two hours, and four hours total from sunset to sunrise. Sandwich boards must be situated within 2 feet of the business they identify.

Additionally, the new ordinance limits mixed-use buildings to three signs, with maximum sizes of 40 to 90 square feet, depending on location.

High school scoreboards with digital graphics and animation are only permitted to be used during "athletic events" and can't have any permanent signage.

In 1972, Brentwood enacted its first sign ordinance, which limited freestanding signs to a 6-foot height.   

Information on the city's sign codes can be found at

When the Court Overthrew Madison, Wisconsin's Ban on Portable Signs

Madison, Wisconsin, the home of the University of Wisconsin, once had regulations that banned virtually all portable signs, and signs in the public right-of-way. The city determined that such signs were "more distracting and hazardous to pedestrian and traffic safety, less compatible with surrounding uses and graphics, of lesser quality and more difficult to uniformly regulate."

Two business owners both had niche stores a half block off the main pedestrian flow, State Street, with low-visibility locations. Their solution was 6-square-foot, A-frame, sidewalk signs. Although the ban had been in effect for 14 years, the city began citing these two business owners. When they removed their signs, their sales plummeted. When they again put out their signs, fines amounted to $8,700.

Two local newspapers editorialized in favor of the business owners. College students also sided with the businesses. The issue ended up in municipal court.

The court cited the city's "sporadic enforcement" of the sign ban. It also cited the lack of content neutrality as unconstitutional. It also noted the use of an A-frame sign that directed motorists to a parking lot owned by the city.

An account of these proceedings appears in the September 2002 issue of Signs of the Times magazine   

North Olmsted's Unconstitutional Lack of Content Neutrality

In 1991, the city of North Olmsted, Ohio enacted a comprehensive sign code that banned the installation of new pole signs. Furthermore, it banned existing signs on poles, except for signs with official public notices, the emblem of a government body or charity drives. An approximate seven-year amortization period followed, but nearly 1,000 legal, non-conforming pole signs were allowed to remain standing until January 1, 1998.

The ordinance also prohibited signs from having phone numbers, announcements of sales, or mentioning more than one product. A wine and cheese shop had to choose which product to mention. A Dodge car dealership wouldn't be allowed to add five stars to its sign to indicate that it was a five-star dealer. The city's own chamber of commerce subsequently filed suit against the city.

Additionally, the sign code tasked building officials with designing and sizing signs to be "aesthetically harmonious with an overall urban design for the area." Specifics were not provided for "aesthetically harmonious."

The sign code was thrown out en toto (entirely) because of numerous Constitutional violations. It was blatantly content-based; the criteria for enforcement were highly subjective and vague; the city could show zero correlation between its stated goals, of safety and aesthetics, and the measures it adopted, which completely negated any chance that its measures would be deemed "narrowly tailored" to achieve their stated objectives. The sign code erroneously wanted to discriminate against commercial speech, in contrast to non-commercial speech.

The city had to completely rewrite its sign code. An article about this court case appeared in the December 1999 issue of Signs of the Times magazine. 

Three years later, a similar situation occurred in Thomas Township, Michigan. A pole sign that identified the tenant of a building became a legal, non-conforming sign when the sign code changed. When the tenant moved out, a new sign was needed for the new tenant. The township denied a new permit.

Representatives from the sign industry requested a summary judgment, and greatly relied on the North Olmstead ruling. The court found that 11 of the township's 14 sections ignored the First Amendment and its content-based or prior-restraint provisions. This court case is referenced in the October 2002 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.   

A year after that, back in Ohio, a city 21 miles from North Olmsted repeated the same mistakes. The judge wrote "Broadview Heights' city council and the mayor should have understood that North Olmstead clearly established that an ordinance of the sort in effect in Broadview Heights violated rights under the First Amendment. For this reason, the magistrate judge recommends that the court find the defense of qualified immunity is not available to the mayor and members of the city council of Broadview Heights."    

When Motel 6 Challenged Flagstaff's Pole-sign Reduction

In 1997, Flagstaff, Arizona revised its sign code to reduce the allowable height of pole signs to 12 feet, even if they were located along highways. Existing, legal, nonconforming signs were grandfathered, which means they were allowed to stay. However, the sign code also stipulated that if more than 10% of a grandfathered sign was to be changed, it would lose its grandfather status.

Soon after the new sign code went into effect Motel 6 adopted a new corporate logo. It had four motels in the Flagstaff jurisdiction. Similarly, the Circle K convenience stores underwent a logo change. Finally, the Greentree Village Shopping Center had a tenant move out and wanted to identify the new tenant. All three were refused sign permits for the alterations, and they collectively hired Attorney David K. Jones to represent them.

Jones argued that the sign code allows any "normal" nonconforming sign to be grandfathered, and the changing out of sign faces is a "normal" activity, so this activity couldn't be banned. Secondly, he cited an Arizona law that says cities must allow for reasonable sign repairs and alterations. Thirdly, he argued the stipulation was unconstitutional because, in essence, it regulated the content of the sign. Finally, Jones said it violated the Lanham Act, which protects federally registered trademarks.

The state court ruled in favor of all three plaintiffs and ordered that the sign permits be granted. The court cited the "reasonable sign repairs" language and didn't even consider Jones' third and fourth arguments. Flagstaff appealed the decision and lost again. The opinion may be found at Motel 6 v. City of Flagstaff, Ariz., 991 P.2d 272 (App.2000). An article about the case was published in the July 2000 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.      

When San Jose Re-wrote its Sign Code to Accommodate Knight-Ridder

In the late 1990s, San Jose had a fairly restrictive sign code. But the publishing conglomerate, Knight-Ridder Corp., wanted to relocate there to Silicon Valley from Miami. Cities often offer incentives to attract major businesses. In this case, San Jose offered to rewrite its sign code if renowned designer Michael Manwaring was hired. The San Jose Redevelopment Agnecy previously worked with Manwaring.

Manwaring subsequently designed two curved, 13 x 95-foot signs that were erected on the rooftop of the 17-story building. Each of the 54,.000-lb. signs were lifted into place by a 350-to crane. Each has a 158-degree radius. The full story appears in the March 2000 issue of Signs of the Times magazine. 


What had the Intl. Zoning Code, the Intl. Building Code and the Intl. Code Council once proposed for sign regulations?

In luly 1997, Signs of the Times magazine received a fax from the late Andrew Bertucci, the Executive Director of the United States Sign Council (USSC). Through a chance conversation with an engineer, he heard about a proposed International Zoning Code (IZC) that was being considered by the International Code Council (ICC) and the Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA). Chapter 10 in this IZC specifically addressed signs, with the following regulations. (No one from the sign industry was notified of the public hearing, nor the Final Action Hearings slated for September and October 1997.)

Freestanding signs in commercial areas would be limited to 40 square feet.

Projecting signs could not exceed 64 square feet.

Lighting for sign would be limited to internal illumination and exterior floodlights. Visible lighting sources such as exposed neon were prohibited.

Roof-mounted signs would be prohibited.

Portable signs, banners and pennants would only be permitted as temporary signs.

Billboards would be limited in height to 36 feet above grade and a maximum of 300 square feet.

Freestanding signs within 15 feet of the property line could not exceed 15 feet in height. For each 1 foot further back, 2 feet of height could be added, up to a maximum of 36 feet. Freestanding signs on abutting properties must be at least 50 feet apart.

Legal, nonconforming signs that would require alterations in excess of 25% of the sign's value would need to conform to all new regulations.

At the time, Signs of the Times Technical Editor Bill Dundas (currently an FASI board member) observed, "In my 20 years of dealing with a wide variety of municipal sign codes, this is the first time I've seen such a large-scale effort to override local autonomy." 

After the ICC agreed to postpone the IZC for further review, the related, but separate, International Building Code issued proposed signage regulations throughout various chapters. In contrast to the IZC, it was considered "advisory," and not a mandate.

Chapter 4 restricted the size of plastic panels and signs in covered shopping malls. Chapter 15 (rooftop structures) restricted the sign height and prohibited illuminates signs. The most restrictive chapter, 26, on "plastics," said all internally illuminated signs and all awnings would be prohibited.  

Subsequently, three (now deceased) members of the sign industry -- Bertucci; Kirk Brimley (for whom the International Sign Association has named its highest honor) and Phoenix attorney David Jones -- used USSC and ISA model codes to write some suggested changes. With two minor exceptions, their changes were accepted in total, including a definitions section with more than 60 items. In many sign codes, the definitions are more important that the rest of the sign code.  This conclusion is documented in the January 2000 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.


Santa Monica Bans Pole Signs, Roof Signs and Banners/Flags/Pennants with Advertising Content

in 1985, the city of Santa Monica, California passed a new sign code that banned all pole signs. This legislation included a 15-year amortization schedule, which meant all of the legal, non-conforming signs would have to be removed in 2000. An article in the May 1999 issue of Signs of the Times magazine stated that this involved 825 pole signs in a community that had 1718 businesses. The article states that an architect, who helped craft the sign code, said "The newer signs are small and in good taste. They should not have to compete with big signs that are in bad taste."

In 2016, according to the current sign code,, pole signs and roof signs are still banned. Banners, flags and pennants are likewise banned if they contain "advertising commercial content." How this would hold up in light of the Reed v. Gilbert SCOTUS decision is unknown. 

The code does allow legal, non-conforming signs to be "grandfathered," (allowed to remain) if they are deemed "meritorious."

A year later, the town backtracked a bit and said nonconforming signs would only need to be removed in "development areas," because it determined just compensation wasn't required there. The Meritorious Sign Task Force established more specific criteria for "historically" and "artistically significant." At an initial meeting, 21 signs were deemed worthy of meritorious consideration. Three months later, 93 signs were officially considered meritorious.

Then, another 55 companies appealed to be considered meritorious, and of these 21 were upheld, which brought the final total to 114 companies. A full report appears in the May 2000 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.