Chapter 23.55: Signs

Signs. Yet another aspect of the code rife with potential controversy. I’m not entirely sure why. My guess is that it is because all signs are not created equal. The purpose of signs is different in different circumstances. And, like personal appearance, signs are expressive of style and style is often not something that is universally understood. One person’s style is another person’s ugly sign. From the first cave drawings to the “Please Clean Up After Yourself” passive aggressive note on the refrigerator in your office, people have been making signs. What does the code say about them?

The code is strangely outcomes based when it comes to sign. It’s worth quoting the intent section in it’s entirety.

The intent of the standards in this chapter is:

A. To encourage the design of signs that attract and invite rather than demand the public’s attention, and to curb the proliferation of signs;
B. To encourage the use of signs that enhance the visual environment of the city;
C. To promote the enhancement of business and residential properties and neighborhoods by fostering the erection of signs complementary to the buildings and uses to which they relate and which are harmonious with their surroundings;
D. To protect the public interest and safety;
E. To protect the right of business to identify its premises and advertise its products through the use of signs without undue hindrance or obstruction; and
F. To provide opportunities for communicating information of community interest.

OK. Stop right there. We’re done. That’s all we need. Maybe a couple more paragraphs. One saying the director will make rules and implement them through her designee and:

Appeals to Municipal Court.

If a person asserts a noncommercial speech right protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and/or Article I, Sections 3, 4, and 5 of the Washington Constitution, and is aggrieved by an action of the City in denying or enforcing a permit or in removing a sign, and time be of the essence, the person may petition the presiding judge of the Seattle Municipal Court for a prompt review thereof. The matter shall be granted priority as a case involving constitutional liberties and shall be heard in the manner provided by the Municipal Court by rule, and the decision of the Municipal Court shall be final subject only to judicial review.

And we’re done.

Alright, maybe I am being a bit naive. I’m being downright unrealistic, aren’t I.

After such a beautiful opening on what we want to do with signs in Seattle, the code does what the code does best, outlining limits to prevent what we’re afraid of happening. For example:

No off-premises sign or business sign shall be erected within six hundred sixty (660) feet outgoing from the nearest edge of the main traveled way of any landscaped and/or scenic view section of a freeway, expressway, parkway or scenic route designated by this subsection and shown on Exhibit A 23.55.042 (Type A sections), and no off-premises sign shall be erected within two hundred (200) feet in any direction from the main traveled way of the exit and entrance ramps thereto, if any part of the advertising matter or informative content of the sign is visible from any place on the traveled way of the landscaped and/or scenic view section or ramp, except as provided in subsections C and D

There is no doubt that we ought to have rules about signs, and that those rules should be written down. But I would argue that they don’t need to be in the code. If we wanted to reduce the size of the code this would be one way to do it. Like the Right-of-Way Manual, we could have a Sign Manual that would be largely within the purview of the Director and the Planning and Development Commission.

What ends up happening, however, are legislative battles over signs. I don’t have a strong opinion on signage. I know bad signage when I see it.

Roosevelt Avenue

And the argument is that, if we didn’t have this section of the code with some kind of backing from the Council, when there are disputes people would game the system and we’d get horrible signs all over the place.

I don’t think so, anymore than we have them now. I like the idea of setting out what we want to see and then empowering the Director to make those things happen. If the Director fails in the view of the Council or the Mayor or the Planning and Development Commission (see my first post on the Charter) then they can push for changes. I think this is true of much of the code.

But what we have, instead, is a build up of language in the code that is aimed at stopping bad things in very specific places for reasons that, over time, might disappear. I suspect much of the language in this section of the code was written over the years to prevent specific signs from being erected or controlling proliferation of signs in a specific area or context. The problem is that when such things are written into code, they have the force of law and don’t create a pathway to get what we want. That language might have solved that problem, but it doesn’t get us closer to our vision.

In this way, I think we can learn something from the chapter on signs: concentrate on outcomes and let standards intended to reach those outcomes evolve over time.

See lots of signs on the Land Use Pictures tab.

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One Response to Chapter 23.55: Signs

  1. Pingback: Chapter 23.58A Incentive Provisions | Seattle's Land Use Code

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