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Signs too soon and signs too flashy

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.”

Still photo of the animated sign display in front of Oak Ridge High School

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.



  1. Ellen Smith says:

    At Facebook, Mike wrote:

    We need more “nice” larger signs to let people know about Grove Center, etc. Hopefully we do not end up with much flashing signage.

    Ellen’s reply:

    I definitely agree with you regarding the need for signs to help people find their way from our major thoroughfares to Grove Center (and Jackson Square) — and telling them what kinds of things they will find at those shopping centers. Unfortunately, the sign ordinance currently is pretty clear about not allowing off-site signs for businesses.

  2. Ellen Smith says:

    Also on Facebook, Len Hart wrote:

    I couldn’t agree with you more with regard to changing the sign ordinance for businesses…..Been here all my life, I don’t need signs, however, if we expect to have new people here, they need to be able to find what little retail is left here…..thinking needs to be “progressive” instead of “that’s the way we’ve always done it”…..Needs to be “re-structured” in a positive manner….

    Ellen’s reply:
    A while back, the preview of an upcoming City Council agenda said something about amending the sign ordinance to allow offsite wayfinding signs. I was seriously disappointed to find that the change was only to allow offsite signs to point people to new residential subdivisions. Staff said that the signs I envision for J. Square and G. Center can’t be done. I don’t believe it.

    Mike agreed with Mr. Hart and later wrote:
    I will support you in trying to get changes to allow wayfinder signs for J Square and G Center. Just one person but if we can get several people maybe it can be done.

  3. Ellen Smith says:

    Still more Facebook discussion:

    Theresa Scott wrote:
    It’s obvious that some 1) just don’t care and 2) consider the political signs to be more of a game of “catch me if you can”. The oddest part is cameras. They’re everywhere and you’d be surprised to see who’s caught smiling.

    Have you called these violations in to alert the proper the city staff?

    Cathy commented about political signs giving visitors the wrong impression of a community.

    Ellen’s reply:
    Yes, Theresa, I’ve commented to city staff about the electronic signs. However, I don’t think there’s much percentage in having staff try to enforce against political signs put up too early — those violations seem to be sporadic, and the city’s main concern is that candidates (like you) know the rules. The staff does, however, remove candidate signs that are put in traffic islands or too close to the pavement of an arterial street.

    If it’s any consolation, Cathy, I think that political signs are used almost everywhere nowadays, so they don’t give visitors as unfavorable an impression as one might think. But I wish there were more efficient ways for candidates to communicate with voters.

    Cathy replied:
    I should have perhaps clarified my statement about visitors and tourists. I was referring to the historic hometown from which I came 10 years ago. It is a major tourist town dating back to the 1830s. Women’s Rights Nat’l Park is there as well as the Elizabeth Cady Stanton home. Many of the homes are on the National Register within a historic district encompassing the original town boundaries.The main street is a major NY State route going through the center of the town. Instead of being able to see and enjoy the marvelous Victorian architecture as one entered town, one is greeted by clusters of 6-8 political signs apiece on nearly every lawn in front of those residences. This is, to me, “visual clutter” that is not appealing to a visitor. Perhaps the old adage “moderation in all things” should have applied, and I hope that applies here in Oak Ridge as well in regard to political signage.

    In reference to Cathy’s hometown, Nancy wrote:
    I remember driving through Seneca Falls every Christmas time on the way to my aunt’s farm and admiring the festive colored lights strung across the main street. Today that’s Old Stuff but circa 1940, Wow!
    (Yes, we had electricity back then!)

    Ellen’s reply:
    It’s clear that striking the right balance with signs (in Oak Ridge or Seneca Falls) is a challenge. People depend on signs, not only for wayfinding, but also for information (about businesses, events, candidates, etc.), but useful signs can quickly morph annoying visual clutter. Hopefully, our ordinance strikes a good balance. I don’ t think I’ve ever been to Seneca Falls, but my recollections of nearby places like Geneva and Penn Yan lead me to think that Seneca Falls frowns on sigh clutter.

  4. Betty Taylor says:

    The city of Kingston passed an ordinance a few tears back stating that voting signs may be placed only in individuals’ yards or on business’s property. Signs placed on city right of ways were picked up by the city’s street department and taken to the city garage for pick up by the candidate or destroyed after vote date.

    This enabled city employees to more easily mow right of ways and prevented signs close to intersections that could cause visual problems for motorists.

  5. […] popping up around town earlier this month. This is a perennial issue — see the June 2010 post “Signs Too Early and Signs Too Flashy” on this […]

  6. nuclear.kelly says:

    Out of curiosity – is the new flashing sign at what used to be Flatwater Grill allowable under the rules? I detest that sign. It’s too bright when you drive past it at night, and it’s an eyesore to anyone walking/cycling/etc along the Melton Lake Greenway.

  7. Ellen Smith says:

    I think the sign you refer to (at Riverside Grill; formerly Flatwater Grill) is not being used in accordance with the city zoning ordinance. I think the sign itself is legal (although most people preferred the ground sign the restaurant used to have), but the way it’s operated is not. City staff may not agree with my interpretation of the ordinance, though. I think that the sign violates the restrictions in the ordinance against “blinking, flashing, or fluttering lights” and “changing light intensity, brightness or color”. It’s too bright and it’s too flashy. It also shines in some people’s windows. The ordinance prohibits sign lighting that causes “direct rays or glare emanating from the light source” to be “visible from any public right-of-way or abutting property,” but I’m not sure that applies when the light comes from inside the sign.

    I’ve thought that negative reactions from customers — including people saying they won’t patronize the restaurant because they don’t like the sign — would convince the restaurant owners to change the way the operate the sign, but that hasn’t happened yet.

  8. nuclear.kelly says:

    Well, at least we haven’t been back since they put in the new sign. I tried contacting Kathryn Baldwin (Community Development) when the sign first went up, but got no response. At least now I know what the rules are.

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