Monday, October 22, 2007

Signs & Our Clients

Not long ago, Dale Rice sent me this article from the October 2nd Buffalo News. It reports the desire of the mayor of East Aurora (about 15 miles southeast of Buffalo) to ban outdoor digital signs in that village.

Proposing to ban any kind of sign is fraught with legal & Constitutional issues, as signage (as a form of commercial speech) is protected under the First Amendment. Hundreds of cases have been brought up (and won) by businesses over the years, challenging the legality of their local codes. If passed, the proposed sign code for East Aurora could eventually meet this same fate.

Last week, I was part of a panel presentation on the importance of fairly-constructed, legally-sound sign codes. In the audience were town and municipal officials, inspectors, and code enforcement officials who were eager to learn about the subject. Codes exist all over the country that impose restrictions and obstacles on business owners when it comes to the sign outside their front door, and they're often written by people who aren't aware of the impact of their words. Bonus points to those in attendance, because they're trying to get things right.

At this same presentation, I heard numerous stories from sign manufacturers (most of them small business owners) about difficulties they encounter in getting approval for their clients' signs. Many sign codes are riddled with inconsistencies, which makes compliance needlessly complicated for small business owners trying to get themselves up & running.

Unfortunately, this Buffalo News article reflects a situation that's all too common across the country. Sign codes are often written under the theory that signs can be a distraction to drivers. Others are written because a town wants to strictly enforce a certain look. Some incorporate both. For the former, no data exists that shows signs as a menace to auto traffic (while dozens of studies prove that good signage is actually a big help to drivers).

The East Aurora case is about maintaining the look of a town. Towns don't want to "look like Las Vegas," so codes get written as a means of legislating a town aesthetic. Such codes have been known to ban certain types of sign, or impose restrictions on what colors can be used, or how letters should appear, or allow for only certain types and/or sizes of signs. Some of these provisions are valid, but some are not. (For instance, a color scheme is part of a business trademark. It's a violation of the federal Lanham Act for a town code to mandate a business to change the color of its Federally-trademarked image.)

This is something that our clients encounter all the time. Sign codes can be challenged legally, but litigation is time-consuming, and far too expensive for a single small business to undertake alone.

But litigation doesn't have to be the way. One of the themes of the conference was to encourage cooperation between local governments & their business communities in creating reasonable sign codes. While there, I heard specifically about how digital billboards can be used by towns to inform their citizens of weather emergencies, traffic accidents, Amber Alerts, and community events. That's a benefit to a town, and digital billboards are increasingly the best tool to get that critical job done.

We've written about all of this in our What's Your Signage? publication. Again, these are things that our clients face all of the time.

The best, fairest sign codes come about when community officials work with their business sector in designing a code that enables a proper balance between living standards and commercial opportunity. In addition, the International Sign Association is staffed with people who are eager to help government officials in drafting sign codes that will not expose them to any future legal action.

And ask your clients about their experiences with signage - I'm curious to know just what they went through. I'll be doing more of these presentations in the future, and the more real-world scenarios I have to share, the better.

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