City Sign Regulations Too Tough on New Business

Visitor Question: Our city has refused to allow us to even apply for a permit for a flag to advertise our business. They have railroaded us into 8 months of work to obtain a permanent sign for our business, then made us take it down after obtaining that permit and building the sign. So we are 8 months into the business and still not able to erect a sign or any advertisement to let people know our business is there. Is our only option to move to a more business friendly city?

Editors Respond: Most brick and mortar businesses do not really have the option of moving so early in the life of the business.

Since we overlooked this question when it was first submitted--and we apologize, we are going to assume that the situation has resolved itself in some way. Let's use this situation to look at some general lessons for business start-ups and for city officials.

First for owners of new businesses, we urge you to thoroughly read and understand your city's rules about signs of all types. Often these rules are found in a section of the zoning ordinance, but sometimes sign regulation is a free-standing law.

If you read but find it complicated to understand, don't be afraid to ask for help. A zoning official (or a town or city clerk in a place too small to have a planning or zoning staff) should be able to answer questions and explain everything.

Make sure the person answering your questions is focusing on your exact location and any regulations that apply in that geography and to your type of business. Communicate all the information in order to get an accurate answer.

We also recommend that you make a recording or take notes, so that you can show what a city official told you if you later are given contradictory information. This doesn't happen in a well-run government, but some cities don't have enough competent staff members to answer all the questions correctly.

Now let's talk to the city officials, both elected and appointed, paid staff. You need to go out of your way to make sure that a new business in your town understands the rules about signs, both temporary and permanent. Don't assume that a new business owner understands anything about the terminology for signs or zoning.

For instance, the original questioner comments about a flag. In many places a flag is a sign or temporary sign, but don't assume that the business understands that.

Do your best to assure that the business owner who asks questions about signs understands all of the rules about the size, shape, color, and placement.

Yes in a legal sense, it is the responsibility of the business to ensure that the sign that he or she purchases is compliant with your laws.

But in the big scheme of things, your city probably needs the businesses and the jobs, so take that extra effort to help a new business get up and running. A business anywhere other than a heavy traffic pedestrian area probably needs a sign to help customers realize they are open for business, so try to be as helpful as possible.

Since all of us who write for this site have worked with municipal governments, we know that sometimes a business or home owner just does not listen to good advice about signs or anything else.

But just in case you are an overly busy city official who didn't give correct information or enough information to help a new business owner get started, next time observe carefully whether you have all the facts before you offer advice, and whether the business owner has heard you. And if your city wants to be labeled as business-friendly, don't assume that it is sufficient to give an applicant a multi-page excerpt of your zoning ordinance. Many people can't read and understand such documents.

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