Zoning Permit for Signs?

Visitor Question: What is the necessity of a zoning permit for signs, as compared to just a building permit?

I am the planning and zoning director of a rural/suburban bedroom community and our newly elected board is interested in making our ordinances and processes "more business friendly".

Our community is somewhat divided about what they want for the community and what that actually means, but we have and continue to modify our ordinances to be more flexible and business friendly (not that we were unfriendly before!).

Anyway, in working on a code amendment for our sign ordinance, one supervisor suggested that we not require permits for signs - that we rely on complaints to enforce the ordinance, but not require a zoning permit. Certain signs would need building permits, but not zoning.

I was caught off guard by the suggestion and felt that if you didn't require permits you may as well just get rid of the ordinance since enforcement is difficult even when you have a permit documenting the permitted use or sign dimensions. We currently exempt many temporary signs from permitting.

So, my question is what are the benefits to the community and property owner for a permit?

I have some ideas -It does validate that the use or structure meets the locality's requirements; it protects the property owner in any vested rights should the ordinance change; it is evidence if you do need to enforce a use or structure that does not meet the ordinance; insurance and mortgage companies typically require them.

Does anyone have other ideas or thoughts of why a zoning permit is a good thing? Or why not requiring one would be ok?

What are the pros and cons - of the permit - not zoning itself? Thanks!

Editors Reply: Usually the four of us who work on this site are in complete agreement on a question such as this. Not this time.

But the sense of our group is that some type of permit is needed for anything other than a temporary sign. Frankly we think that the type of permit, whether zoning or building, is less important.

The reasoning is that almost everywhere, a building permit requires a sign-off of compliance with zoning. Of course, this is an extra step, adding to the possibility that the permit application gets stuck on someone's desk. Any time you can handle permits that are common for businesses as a one-step process, that is a plus for business.

We want to be clear that any free-standing sign should require a building permit, just to make sure it is structurally sound and resistant to wind and storm damage. In fact, we think any sign sign except a painted one should have a building permit.

Back to the issue of being business-friendly, the hours in which permit applications can be accepted and acted upon, as well as the applicable fee, probably are more important to businesses than the actual type of permit they are required to obtain.

Some municipalities have moved to an online permitting system for relatively simple matters. Most signs, except gigantic highway-oriented signs, are relatively straightforward in concept. This might be a situation in which online could work. Alternatively, if your website is not up to that task, you could accept an informal e-mail submittal for comment, followed by the applicant or a representative appearing in person when it appears that all requirements are met.

If the real objections behind the supervisors' stance are just anti-government, there is little that you as a planner can do to address those sentiments.

However, you can and should make the process of obtaining the permit as painless as possible. Your points about the difficulty of enforcement are excellent, but good enforcement begins first and foremost with a good review and permitting process.

With signs in particular, we are fans of taking a photo of the finished sign as a reference point should the sign be changed in the future without obtaining a permit.

Are there additional ideas?

Comments for Zoning Permit for Signs?

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Use Must Match Sign
by: Anonymous

I have waited for someone to bring up this topic, and what a breath of fresh air to find this question coming from a planning and zoning director. I respect this director for attempting to be fair to all, and that most certainly would include neighboring property owners.

I posted a story on UCD sometime ago concerning whether or not a "Special Exception" is allowed to become a nuisance, and so my comment today, will explain how a "SIGN" began as the seed, that grew into a nuisance spot zoning, for one Volusia County, Florida neighborhood.

In the middle of an older established neighborhood, where one acre single family homes co-existed with home-businesses that developed quietly and in sync with the St. John's River, a "sign" for a Bible School attached to a "church" with no congregation, turned into a magnet school. How does this happen? Because, according to our zoning director, "a sign" that is posted, denotes a use. Since, according to this director, zoning is supposedly complaint driven, as long as no one complains about the use, whether the property is zoned for that use or not, the use may continue. It turns out, that no Bible school or church operated on this R3 property, and so therefore, no one complained. But since the sign was up, the use was able to commence some 10 years later, stating that they had "open signage" for years and that although no re-zoning has been established, legally, they can continue. The playgrounds however, did not exist where anyone could hear or see them, yet they magically appeared along with a new sign for a "preparatory school."

So, I commend you for your efforts to research the answer to your question about whether a permit for the sign "itself" as well as a building permit, should be sought. MOST Indubitably YES!" The use of the playgrounds is totally out of character with the Leisure Services offered by our local watering holes,canoe rentals,bait shops,sandwich shops, etc. It doesn't hurt that the business is owned by an employee of the county, as well.

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