Crack the code: Commercial sign expert reveals 8 secrets to getting your sign approved
Do your homework or risk major delays to your sign approval.
When I started in the commercial signage business 27 years ago, we could walk into a city or county permitting office and, 15 minutes later, leave with an approved sign permit.
These days, if you choose to wait, you’ll be sitting in that same office for about five weeks on average.
I love everything about the signage business, but after nearly three decades, the most challenging part remains the permitting process. Regulations have become more challenging, establishing overall height, setbacks from the street and nearby structures, square footage allowances for text, distance between signs, and the number of signs that a property is allowed to have.
Rules and regulations – which vary depending on whether it's a commercial, industrial, or residential zone – are done in the name of keeping a pleasant aesthetic to streetscapes and skylines (although beauty is in the eye of the beholder) and, perhaps more nobly, ensures displays don’t impede right of way and keeps people safe (which we support).
In an otherwise two-party, commercial transaction between sign designer/installer and property, the involvement of government bureaucracy can quickly slow down business. And sometimes, these stringent regulations can kill a project altogether.
Here are eight tips I’ve learned over the years to get through it as fast as possible and keep your project on track.
Never walk into a permitting office blind.
If you are going into the permitting process for first time, do your homework to understand the true nuances of the code up front, or call by phone and discuss them before you step foot in the office. It is critical to know precisely what you can and can’t do with your location’s signage as early as possible.
Don’t believe what you read online.
Just because the ordinances and codes are listed online does not mean they are up to date. There also may be regulations at the property level, called proffers, that pertain to your property alone. These proffers may work for or against you; for example, an amendment to the code may have been granted to the original property owner to allow for signage that is taller or allows for more text space than code dictates.
Many parties are involved. Be patient.
Years ago, a permitting office would quickly approve your design. If it met the requirements, you were good to go. Today, properties face much heavier scrutiny. Many require review from the local architectural review board. Some need a stamped engineer’s drawing. Other county officials want to see the calculations used by the engineer (whose job is on the line) to ensure they are accurate. We’ve also seen some jurisdictions getting second opinions from outside consultants before giving the green light.
Go overboard on information.
Permit applications request a host of information – go above and beyond. Take pictures, provide renderings, even show communications between property managers and sign vendors. Dimensions will be requested; include your math. More information will give the approving bodies confidence that you’ve done your homework.
Zoning rules are not always black and white; in the gray area are the relationships that you personally and professionally maintain with the individuals who are responsible for approving and rejecting signs. That doesn’t mean city or county employees need to have been lifelong friends; a pleasant “How’s your day going?” to the receptionist can get the process going on the right foot.
Relationships are equally as important with your neighbors, particularly if you are adding a digital LED display, which some may find intrusive. Make sure some of the more prominent voices nearby won’t challenge your new design with the permitting office. A neighbor’s letter of recommendation for your new sign could help push your permit through the process faster, too.
Follow up and be persistent.
Getting your sign is urgent for you; for the individuals responsible for getting it approved, you are one in a stack of to-dos. Be diligent and proactive. If they say they need a week to get back to you, call back in three days.
Look for loopholes in the code.
In one county where we regularly install signs, the code says a sign cannot be more than 24 inches in depth, which means we can’t very well pull off dimensional layering. Reading closer, we found that the depth requirement did not apply if the sign has a V-shape, so we constructed a V-shaped sign to add more depth and layers.
Ask a lot of questions.
Even if the rules seem crystal clear, ask lots of questions. It’s rather remarkable how some localities bend the rules – or don’t enforce them. Many signage requirements come about because someone in the course of the county’s history whined, someone in the county obliged, the zoning board passed the rule, and an obscure ordinance came to pass. That doesn’t mean these rules are enforced, though.
Some localities even prohibit pylons from including tenant names on them, but guess what? These localities (not naming names!) have numerous pylons filled with tenant listings. Those sign builders clearly did their research.
The last tip, we’d recommend, is hiring a signage partner to handle the zoning process for you. A full-service sign provider will handle everything from design to getting approvals and even represent your property, in person, in front of boards and councils (if needed). Ad Vice Studios has nearly three decades of experience in dealing with permitting matters in localities across the country; I wouldn’t say it’s our favorite part of the job (that’d be the moment your new sign goes up), but it’s one where we’ve got a proven track record of success.
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About the author:
David Goodwin is the president of Ad Vice Studios, a Richmond, Va.-based marketing services and sign design company. David has built his career and his business collaborating with property managers, developers and architects to transform commercial properties into attractive destinations with unique brands and customer experiences.
8/16/2019 01:11:10 pm
Thank you for your tip to follow up and be persistent. I imagine that you are much more likely to get the permit if you are persistent. I have been thinking of building something so I can get my business out of my garage. I will make sure to follow up soon after I start the permit process.
10/11/2019 01:18:58 pm
You said to ask a lot of questions. This is great to remember because I want to make a sign. I'll look for a place near me to make a custom sign.
10/21/2019 08:52:21 pm
I love your tip about being patient in the process of getting a sign design approved. My husband has a restaurant in Boise, ID and wants to get a commercial sign to help market. We will keep these tips in mind when searching for a professional to help him make the sign.
Thanks for helping me understand that codes and regulations online might not be up-to-date that is why it is best to be informed first. With that in mind, custom company sign manufacturing services should be well-versed about the regulations as well so business owners would also be making the right decisions when it comes to working with them. I can imagine how it can save them a lot if they are sure that they are not violating any regulations in their locality regarding signages.
4/22/2022 09:14:31 pm
I never knew that it is equally important having a good relationship with your neighbors. A couple of days ago, my best friend told me that he and his wife were hoping to find a building approval that could provide a stress-free building certification process for their upcoming residential real estate project, and he asked if I had any idea what would be the best option to do. Thanks for helping me understand, I'll be sure to tell him that he can consult building approvals certification as they can provide more information about the certification process.
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Ad Vice Studios
David Goodwin is the president of Ad Vice Studios, a Richmond, Va-based marketing services company. David has built his career and his business collaborating with property managers, developers and architects to transform commercial properties into attractive destinations with unique brands and customer experiences.