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.