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Sign Ordinance Q&A

By Ed Fuentes and Eric Richardson
Published: Wednesday, January 21, 2009, at 05:04PM
1969 Ed Fuentes

Images similar to this one have appeared around the city courtesy of SkyTag's Mike McNeilly, who claims them to be art and subject to First Ammendment protection.

Confused by our story on the new sign ordinance? Don't feel bad, it's an awfully complex situation and one long new set of rules. We've put together a Q&A to try and shed some light on the topic.

Why is it hard to distinguish between on-site and off-site signage?

The new rules remove the distinction between the two, with the Planning department saying that this will make life easier for inspectors from the Bureau of Street Services. The staff report published with the ordinance asks some good questions that illustrate the grey nature of the definition.

A sign may advertise goods and services that are sold on-site, but are also available off-site. Should the sign be classified as on-site or off-site?

A good Downtown example can be found on the side of Macy's Plaza. Facing 8th street is an ad for a Tony Hawk branded T-Mobile Sidekick. T-Mobile has a booth inside the complex, so the product is likely sold inside. The ad, though, doesn't mention this and just advertises the product. An inspector would also be unlikely to know whether or not T-Mobile had a presence inside.

What will the new ordinance do to murals?

Because the new ordinance changes the rules to only address factors like size and location, murals would be governed the same as any other sign and would count against the signage space available to a property.

The new rules on wall signs would make the largest mural allowable under to code 100 square feet, just ten feet by ten feet. Larger murals would have to be allowed under a separate process yet to be determined, most likely the previously discussed adaptation of Portland's "art easements".

How would the rules be enforced?

The ordinance does nothing major to change the current enforcement situation. In eliminating the distinction between on-site and off-site signage it tries to make enforcement easier, but at the end of the day inspectors from Building and Safety would still need to go out, find signs that are out of compliance and cite them.

Complicating matters is that the city has an estimated 10,000 existing billboards, some of them legal and some not. Legal signs under the existing code can't be made illegal by the new ordinance, so for any sign the inspector would have to figure out what rule it falls under and how to cite it.

Would the new "mural" wall signs put up around the city recently be allowed to stay?

Signage that is illegal under the current rules would not suddenly become legal because the new rules were passed.

Two weeks ago, Curbed asked Dennis Hathaway about the Statue of Liberty "murals". He said that the images violate the city's rules against supergraphics and could well have gone up without a building permit. Either violation is grounds for removal. Hathaway's certainly a biased party in this debate, but his interpretation of the rules is straight-forward.

The city has been reluctant to take a hard line on enforcement in the face of lawsuits and an early ruling against the city. It remains to be seen how a ruling in favor of the city's position more recently will affect its enforcement efforts.

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