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Signs should help businesses reach customers — and they shouldn’t be ugly

Possibly the worst kind of signage: out-of-town businesses that stick illegal signs in front of Oak Ridge businesses

Possibly the worst signage: out-of-town businesses that stick illegal signs in front of Oak Ridge businesses

The last item on the Chamber of Commerce questionnaire was an open-ended question:
Do you have any other issues you would like to address?

My response: I support the city sign ordinance. It helps to maintain the kind of esthetics that I believe people look for in a high-quality community. The visual clutter from competing signs that I see on the streets of some other area communities isn’t good for anybody – it’s ugly, and everyone’s messages get lost in the clutter of many competing signs.

However, I have heard and am sympathetic to the concerns of businesses that lack the visibility they need to help customers find them, the difficulty people have in interpreting the rules about signs, and the impression that certain businesses are allowed to have much better signage than their competitors. I hope that city government and the business community can work together to revamp the sign ordinance so that it allows businesses to have the visibility they need to reach customers, while maintaining esthetics.


Yard signs available “while supplies last”

Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council yard signYes, yard signs are still available for folks who want to show their support for my re-election.

Who wouldn’t appreciate a lawn ornament at this time of year, when lawns and gardens are petering out? I prefer to have these signs displayed in people’s yards, rather than distributing them along road rights of way, so get yours while supplies last!

Bumper stickers in a similar design are also available. These are quality stickers — experience shows that they pull off easily.

Send me an email at ellen@ellensmith.org to place your request.


‘Tis the season for political signs

People have been asking me (and sometimes complaining) about the campaign yard signs that started 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 blog.

In no particular order, here are some answers to this year’s questions:

  • Yes, there are restrictions on these signs in the city of Oak Ridge. City ordinances (specifically, the “Sign Ordinance” section of the zoning code) tell where and when campaign signs can be displayed.
  • Yard signs can’t go up until 30 days before early voting begins in the relevant election. Since early voting for the August 2012 election begins on July 13, signs began to appear legally on June 13.
  • One of the races on the August ballot is a special election to fill the remainder of an unexpired term on the Oak Ridge City Council. This is the seat to which Tom Hayes was elected in 2007. After he resigned last year, Chuck Hope was appointed to serve until a special election to be held on the next regular election date. That turned out to be August 2012. The person who is elected will serve for just 3 months, as this seat will be on the ballot again in November when the regular City Council election is scheduled. Three Council seats (including the one that I hold) will be on the ballot then. I will run for re-election.
  • The two candidates in the special election for City Council are Chuck Hope and Trina Baughn. Both of them are also expected to be candidates in November. (In effect, they will be running for office from now until November.)
  • You shouldn’t be seeing yard signs for me or other November candidates for City Council yet. That’s because we won’t begin campaigning seriously until after the August election. (The situation of two elections 3 months apart is confusing enough as it is – it would only add to the confusion if we started campaigning before the special election!) We can’t legally put up yard signs until the date in mid-September (30 days before early voting begins for November).
  • A city charter referendum in November 2010 changed City Council elections from June of odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years. City Council had nothing to do with initiating this. (In fact, I think most Council members preferred the old arrangement.) The proposal to change the election date came from an elected charter commission and it was approved by an overwhelming majority of voters. To make the transition to the new election schedule, the current terms of office for all elected city officials were extended by almost 1-1/2 years.
  • It’s been suggested to me that certain local candidates have signs that are too large, but my experience is that local candidates pay attention to the rules for the size of signs, so the signs they buy are in compliance.
  • Candidates’ eager supporters – for candidates at the national, state, and local level — are a different story. They often are unaware of the rules, so in every election some candidate signs pop up too early or in prohibited locations such as traffic islands or less than 15 feet from the pavement of an arterial street.
  • Not covered in the city ordinance, but something residents should know: Candidate signs shouldn’t be placed on private property without permission. Sometimes, well-intentioned people stick signs for their favorite candidates in the ground without worrying about property owner permission – and, remarkably, I’ve learned that some property owners leave those signs in place because they think they are supposed to accept them. (No wonder people gripe about campaign signs!) Other times, pranksters pull up signs and place them in different yards. If a candidate sign appears in front of your home or business, but you don’t support that candidate or you don’t want to have a sign on your premises, take the sign down. (Particularly if it’s a sign for a local candidate, it would be neighborly to contact the candidate or campaign and let them retrieve the sign.)

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.