Traveling around Oak Ridge, I’ve been seeing two disconcerting trends related to signage, one temporary (“signs too soon”) and one more permanent (“signs too flashy”).
The temporary trend is political signs going up too soon. Oak Ridge’s sign ordinance (part of the zoning ordinance) specify that political signs can’t go up until 30 days before the election. Since early voting for the August primary starts July 16, that means signs shouldn’t appear until June 16. The county doesn’t have that kind of rule, though, and it looks like the signage that is sprouting legally outside the city limits has spread over the city line. This weekend I’ve noticed yard signs for Rex Lynch for county mayor, Bill Haslam for governor, and John Shuey for county commission, plus a large truck-mounted sign for Aaron Wells. There may be others. Political signs are an important way for candidates to gain visibility, but many people are annoyed by the “sign wars” that accompany elections, so it’s sensible to limit the duration of those wars. I doubt that the candidates can restrain their over-eager supporters until June 16, but city staff should be reminding the candidates of the rules — and I can imagine that some voters will remember who put up their signs “too soon.”
The permanent trend relates to electronic signs with flashing messages and animation. Some people love that kind of sign, but there are many others who consider them to be visual clutter and a potential public nuisance. I have thought that Oak Ridge’s sign regulations didn’t allow flashing and animated sign displays. Section 14.16 of the regulations says:
2. No sign shall have blinking, flashing, or fluttering lights or other illuminating device, which has a changing light intensity, brightness or color.
Also, Section 14.15 lists several kinds of signs that are prohibited, including:
Flashing signs or signs that contain reflective materials, which present a hazard or danger to traffic or the general public.
A “flashing signs” is defined in the ordinance as “Any sign which contains an intermittent or flashing light source, or which includes the illusion of intermittent or flashing light by means of animation, changes in the degree of light intensity, an externally mounted intermittent light source, or reflective metal strips.”
ORHS’ animated sign display next to Oak Ridge Turnpike
The ordinance does allow “moving copy signs” in several zoning districts. A moving copy sign is defined as “A sign which incorporates an electronically or mechanically generated changeable copy message within the sign frame, but which does not incorporate any mechanical movement of the sign itself or any use of pulsating or undulating copy message.”
Late last year, City Council was asked to amend the sign ordinance to allow a fairly large electronic “moving copy” sign on a pole in front of Oak Ridge High School (ORHS) — in a zone where signage previously was limited to relatively small ground signs. We were told that an electronic sign was advantageous because copy could be changed/controlled remotely from the school office, rather than requiring someone to get on a ladder to move letters. That seemed very reasonable, but I ultimately voted against the ordinance amendment, partly because I thought it would become a precedent for other organizations to ask for similar signs, and partly because of statements from school officials and students that suggested it would be used to display flashing messages and animations. The amended ordinance says:
For school facilities with a student population greater than one thousand (1,000), one (1) indirectly or directly illuminated or non-illuminated pole sign shall be allowed. The pole sign may be either a changeable copy sign (readerboard) or a moving copy sign. The surface display area of the pole sign shall not exceed sixty (60) square feet. The top of the pole sign shall be no higher than fifteen (15) feet from ground level.
As I read it, these ordinances prohibit the types of flashing light displays that I’ve seen lately at Rivers Car Care Center and TitleMax — not to mention the animations and flashing messages that ORHS has chosen to display on its new sign. Past conversations with city staff have suggested that they didn’t interpret the ordinance the same way I do. I intend to revisit that issue with staff, and I see from an Internet search that the interpretation and enforcement of similar ordinances is becoming an issue around the country: At the Citizens for a Scenic Florida website, I read that federal law prohibits flashing signs and animated signs on Interstates and other “federal-aid primary” highways, and many municipalities have definitions and restrictions similar to Oak Ridge’s sign ordinance. Comments on an online forum for professional planners indicate a general impression that bans on electronic signs aren’t being enforced; one person wrote:
Code enforcement departments seem to have written off sign regulations, as evidenced by the growing proliferation of animated and flashing signs in communities that otherwise prohibit or strictly regulate them. Are the days of static signs and commercial corridors that don’t resemble the Vegas Strip over? Are sign code issues passe among planners?
Several people have complained to me about the flashing signs I mention. I don’t hear much objection to those electronic signs that display a changing informational message, such as the text signs at IHOP and the CVS Pharmacy. However, people are bothered by animations and other rapid changes in lighted signs, regardless of whether the image is of a waving American flag, the company’s logo, fireworks, or this week’s special prices. The aesthetics of the resemblance to the Las Vegas Strip are one concern, but there are safety issues, too. It is particularly troubling when those flashing images are in a driver’s line of sight, as they can distract drivers from watching the road. Considering the negative responses some people have to these signs, I can imagine that flashing signs could “turn off” some prospective customers — the opposite of the result the businesses are hoping for.
Obviously, I haven’t yet heard from a cross-section of the community on this, but it’s my hunch that many of us would be much happier if local businesses would stop using all the fancy capabilities of their electronic signs. That is, treat them as electronic message boards, with static messages that change no more frequently than once every 10 seconds or so — and no dramatic changes in brightness, color, etc.
Update, June 13, 2010: Hurray for Oak Ridge High School! A few days ago, the animation came off their electronic sign. The last time I looked, it was displaying time and temperature, plus a “Welcome Class of 1960 – 50th Reunion” message. I believe that’s the kind of informational message the community was expecting when the sign was approved.