How to Read a City Sign Ordinance

Those who have never been involved in exterior signage decision making previously are often shocked to learn about the extreme rules and regulations that ultimately determine whether signage is allowed at all, what sign types are permitted by law and the sizing (maximum) limitations.

People often ask, “why are there so many rules and restrictions” and the answer to this question is basically the same as it is for any other rules or restrictions, it only takes one bad apple to spoil it for the rest of us. Without the rules and restrictions, you’d have rampant “sign pollution” and “light pollution” because those who want to promote their businesses as loudly and proudly as they possibly can, would do so without any regard for others. Beyond these factors, rules also take building code and safety concerns into consideration.

Before getting into this exercise too far and discovering that you wasted time unnecessarily, it is recommended that you check with your leasing and/or property management contacts to see if there is a Master Sign Program for the property’s address. A Master Sign Program will have been approved by the city, they will have a copy of it on file and the guidelines outlined supersede the City Sign Ordinance. If they are unsure, you can always contact the city’s Planning Department and ask them, all they will need is the address and they can look it up to let you know.

Signage Rights

To install exterior building signage when the space is leased, the business must have permission to do so which is typically referred to as signage rights. Generally, all exterior building signs require city permitting. One of the key steps in the Permitting Process in obtaining a Landlord Letter of Approval once the client has approved the artwork proofs. The Landlord or a party acting on their behalf like a Property Manager must provide a letter approving the installation of the signage, including placement at a defined address.

Navigating and Interpreting the City Sign Ordinance

Even the most capable of individuals can become confused and perplexed by the poor explanations provided in many city sign ordinances. Working your way through these documents can often be an exercise in frustration that leaves you no further ahead than when you started. They compare to reading a technical owner’s manual written in English by a technical individual who doesn’t read or write the language and doesn’t understand the basic KISS principal of keep it simple stupid. Not only can there be layer after layer of complexity, in addition, the city sign ordinance can be the length of a novel which further complicates the goal of getting to what should be simple answers. It’s not uncommon for the guidelines to be so confusing and open to interpretation that less experienced city employees will misinterpret them and tell you that something isn’t allowed when in fact it is.

Those of us in the industry have learned some short cuts to reading these documents. The basics listed below should provide some short cuts so that you can get to the answers you need quicker when reviewing your city’s sign ordinance:

The first tip in getting to the answers you are most interested in is using the Control “F” function on your computer to search the document. As long as the document allows this function to work you can skip over information that doesn’t pertain to your situation and get to the answers you’re most interested in much quicker.

Property Location – Address

If the local government has divided the city up into zoning areas for the purpose of establishing signage guidelines, then the first step is to locate the installation address and determine which zone it is situated in. They likely use either color coding, an alpha numeric numbering system, or a combination of both.
If your business is located in a larger urban center like the City of Los Angeles, not only will the city be divided into zoning areas, it will also be further divided into “Sign Districts” for the purpose of adding varying levels of restriction by district. (An example of why this is done is to restrict the use of more modern sign types in areas deemed to be historical districts. The goal is to maintain the historical appearance of the area.)

Signage Types Allowed

After determining which zone the address is in, you will have to review the list of sign type definitions to narrow down what sign type you are most interested in and whether that sign type is included in the list of options for your business address. These explanations often include text only without any visual examples. If the sign types or terminology provided is confusing or lacks clarity, you may have to search the internet or contact a sign specialist to gain clarity regarding the various options listed. The most common sign type allowed for exterior building signs today is Channel Letters which can either be illuminated or non-illuminated.

Sizing Calculation – Sizing Restrictions

Once you know what sign types are allowed you will want to know what sizing is possible. In most cases decision makers want the maximum sign size allowable. The sizing or the footprint allowed is commonly specified in square footage. The size may be limited by a combination of the amount of wall space available and restrictions spelled out in the guidelines (i.e., top of sign cannot be elevated above rooftop/roofline or it cannot cover windows etc.). As a standard practice, a calculation is required. To perform the calculation, in most cases you will need a measurement of the building or unit frontage along with the number provided in the guidelines. As an example, the sign ordinance may state that you are allowed, 1.5 square feet per linear foot of frontage up to a maximum size of whatever is stated. In cases where the property is covered by a Master Sign Program, sizing may be specifically spelled out. Maximum letter height for channel letters is often specified and it may depend on factors like how high up the sign is (multi-story building) and how many lines of copy there are in the sign (longer business name may require more than a single line of copy).

Ever wonder why you sometimes see a sign for a well-known branded company and their logo symbol is absent and/or they haven’t used their corporate colors? Use of branded messaging (i.e., corporate colors, logos) may or may not be allowed by city guidelines. In addition, the city may ask for proof of registered trademarks or business logos before they will approve their use in signage. It’s also important to keep in mind that branded messaging (logo: business name and symbol) may restrict the size of your signage and not allow you to get maximum coverage or fully use the square footage footprint allowed. For this reason, the branding packages of national or multinational organizations have numerous layout options they can use (some being more sign friendly) so they can proportionally increase sizing to get full use of sizing available in these instances.

Quantity of Signs Allowed

In instances where the property’s address has frontage on more than one street or has freeway exposure, multiple signs may be allowed. This information will also be available in the city sign ordinance. The sign type allowed, and the sizing may vary based on physical sign placement. In addition, other restrictions may apply and additional permission and/or permitting may be required (Caltrans – The California Department of Transportation often has jurisdiction over signage that will have freeway exposure).
Although there are many similarities, each city has slightly different guidelines or they are written up differently.

As a Licensed Sign Contractor, it is our responsibility to guide and help navigate clients through the complexities of the City Sign Ordinance by interpreting the code and ultimately determining which sign type, sign sizing and placement location is going to smoothly gain city approval in the shortest time period possible. In our 30 plus years of history we’ve worked with the vast majority of cities and municipalities in Southern California, and we are able to apply this experience to make this process as seamless as possible.