Vantage Point: Signs of the Times

A 480Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Signs are a ubiquitous part of our lives, telling us where we are, what to buy, who to vote for. They come in many forms, from street signs to posters plastered onto the sides of buildings to billboards mounted on the tops of buildings and now as digital signage lining our highways. They all serve a purpose, and they are all controversial, serving as the focal point for many land use and quality of life issues.

Signs as Aesthetic Amenities
My township’s historic, small, hard to see in the dark but artistically aesthetic metal signage is threatened by Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) standards meant to improve visibility for travelers. FWHA’s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) calls for uniform size and reflectivity; Lower Merion’s signs conform to neither. With no federal dollars appropriated for municipalities to enforce the 15-year-old standards by the 2018 deadline, the "unfunded mandate" would cost the Township about $1.5 million to fulfill.

Beyond sustainability arguments that the new signs (7 to 10 year lifespan) would cost seven times what it takes to replace and maintain current signs (lifespan measured in decades), the major outcry is over the impending loss of distinguishing character of our community. The early 1900’s design, presumably praised by the great landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead, designer of New York’s Central Park and other landmarks throughout the country, does make it difficult to find streets in the dark. It is not unusual in some areas to see occupants of slow moving vehicles shining flashlights out windows to try to read–or even find–street signs at night. One counter argument is that GPS makes new signage increasingly less necessary.

Signs Affecting Property Values
Philadelphia’s citizens have waged a decades-long fight against commercial signage on buildings, pointing out that the city’s mural program adds to a sense of community while billboards mounted on the sides and roofs of buildings disrupt residential flavor. The city’s early responses included attempts to pass ordinances limiting who could protest proposed billboards, as though only those who lived or owned property within 500 feet of the offending visual would be affected. But those passing through an area judge it by its appearance, deciding whether or not to stop for shopping, home buying, or choosing schools for their children. A local group, Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight (SCRUB, "the public voice for public space"), formed to increase local input regarding outdoor advertising’s commercialization and other quality of life impacts on neighborhoods, and has won numerous Commonwealth Court reversals of city Zoning Board of Adjustment decisions. SCRUB’s most recent victory reversed City Council support of a billboard meant to be viewed only from the highway but found to be also visible from historic Old City.

Signs as Safety Hazards
Light emitting diodes have been brightening our lives for quite some time, and increasingly are used to create dynamic billboards with changing images. Sign owners love LED billboards because they can garner significantly more revenue by rotating the advertisements. But almost as soon as the LED signs started lining the highways, protests about distractions raised questions about safety. A number of states, counties, and municipalities have either banned or placed moratoriums on LED billboards. Those accepting them have adopted regulation of "dwell time" or number of seconds each image in a multiple image display must remain on the screen, as faster changes present greater distraction to drivers. By being "on" all the time, they also consume more electricity than standard signs that are lit only at night.

Signs as Free Speech
As a final illustration of signage’s impact on our lives, consider the case of Bowden v. Town of Carey (decided December 7, 2010 by US District Court for the Eastern Division of North Carolina, Western Division). Cary’s road improvement project in front of Bowden’s house had increased flooding onto his property that repeated efforts by the town had failed to resolve. In utter frustration, Bowden demanded that Cary buy his house from him for a stated price, warning that if it did not, he would paint a sign on his house that would say, "Screwed by the Town of Cary." The Town did not buy his house and Bowden carried through with his threat, in fluorescent orange and pink paint over an area of about 48 square feet on the white siding facing the road.

Cary issued a "Notice of Zoning Violation" based on the part of its ordinances restricting size, threatening a fine of up to $500 per day of continued violation beyond the 72 hours it allowed him to remove the sign. Bowden responded that he would not remove the sign until the underlying dispute between them (the flooding) was resolved, and two months later received a second "Notice", this time based on the part of the ordinance regarding sign appearance and prohibiting fluorescent pigments. Bowden initiated this suit in response, arguing violation of his constitutionally protected right of free speech.

The Court dismissed Cary’s request for summary judgment and upheld Bowden’s free speech arguments to impose a permanent injunction against Cary’s enforcement of its ordinance, noting that residential signs in particular are "a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important." Cary’s sign ordinances were determined to be content based, specifically allowing certain holiday decorations and addressing where political signs may be posted.

"Under the sign ordinance, a searching inquiry into the content of a particular sign is required in order to determine whether it is subject to or exempt from regulation. For example, a holiday sign proclaiming "Merry Christmas to the Town of Cary!" would presumably be exempt as a holiday decoration. Such a sign would not be subject to restriction, and could be displayed no matter how oversized, flashing, or fluorescent. On the other hand, plaintiff’s protest sign proclaiming "Screwed by the Town of Cary" is prohibited unless it complies with the sign ordinance’s restrictions. Similarly, a sign proclaiming "Scrooged by the Town of Cary" would necessitate a searching inquiry into its content to determine whether its seasonal nod renders it a holiday decoration and therefore exempt, or whether it is just a protest sign and therefore subject to restriction. In any event, it is clear that whether a particular sign is subject to the sign ordinance depends on its content, and therefore… the ordinance is content based."

The balance between the public’s interests represented by those who might be irritated by Bowden’s sign and the public’s interests in protecting free speech comes down firmly in favor of free expression.

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 480Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE