Excerpt reprinted with permission from, “What’s In Your Sign Ordinance?”, which appeared in the November 2016 issue of Township Focus magazine, from the Michigan Townships Association.
Signs are protected by the constitutional right to free speech because they express a message—even if that message is only the time and date of an event. Most townships and municipalities in general have taken the right to free speech to mean that one message can’t be treated less favorably than another, regardless of the religious, political or other sentiment it conveys. Some violations are obvious—if your sign ordinance does not allow religious signs or bans certain political signs, that’s a clear First Amendment violation.
But last year, a U.S. Supreme Court decision took the concept of “content neutrality” much further. The crux of the decision is this: If you must read a sign in order to determine if it’s permitted, there is a serious question of whether your sign ordinance is not content-neutral. That means if your township has different regulations for real estate, political or garage sale signs, you could be in violation.
The decision In Gilbert, Ariz., a small church that met in elementary schools and other public buildings used temporary signs to advertise its services. The town’s sign ordinance did not allow outdoor signs without a permit but made an exception for 23 different types of signs. One of these types was temporary directional signs. The ordinance required that temporary directional signs only be displayed for certain amounts of time before and after an event and must include the date of an event. Church members were responsible for making sure the signs were posted on Saturday and then taken down on Sunday afternoon. However, when the church failed to take approved an ordinance that attempts to strike the difficult balance of preventing sign clutter while also regulating solely by size, location and physical characteristics
It’s new territory for the township—and for local governments throughout Michigan and the United States. Regulating signage is an important job for township planning and zoning officials, as well as the township board. Signs don’t just impact your township’s appearance—they can also affect safety. It’s up to your township to make sure signs are at a proper setback from the road and don’t distract drivers.
But because of the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision—Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, Ariz.—virtually every township must now reconsider how it accomplishes this job. A group of attorneys is currently working to create a model ordinance or guidelines for municipalities—including MTA Legal Counsel Catherine Kaufman, attorney at Bauckham, Sparks, Thall, Seeber & Kaufman, PC. The group hopes to release some kind of guidance by the end of the year. Until then, townships should take another look at their sign ordinance and ask for assistance from their attorney. “It’s important for townships to understand that they need to look at their sign regulations and try to identify if they are content neutral,” Kaufman said. “They should ask for assistance from their township attorney or from a municipal attorney. It’s likely they’re going to need some changes.” Keeping your township beautiful
Nonprofit organization Scenic Michigan has long advocated for the regulation of signs as a way to preserve a community’s appearance and character. Larry Keisling, a Scenic Michigan board member and former planning director for the City of Troy, believes that while signs are necessary, too many of them in one small area make a community look cluttered, whether it’s a downtown or a wooded countryside. If sign sizes and setbacks aren’t regulated, they can put drivers and pedestrians alike at risk. At the same time, businesses, nonprofits and anyone with an event to advertise count on signs to let the public know about their event or product. Signs are crucial in political campaigns. And some homeowners just like to place signs in their yard to convey a general message. Most townships have some kind of sign ordinance, which is generally done through the township’s zoning, though it’s also possible to regulate by police power ordinance. The goal in most cases is to allow people, businesses and organizations to advertise and exercise their right to free speech while also keeping their township from being covered in out-of-control signage. Most ordinances control signs by setting limits on their size, height, location and setback from the road. While this sounds simple, sign ordinances tend to be complicated. It’s a common practice to categorize temporary signs by their content and then regulate them differently.
What’s in your sign ordinance? “It’s important for townships to understand that they need to look at their sign regulations and try to identify if they are content neutral. It’s likely they’re going to need some changes.” —MTA Legal Counsel Catherine Kaufman, Attorney, Bauckham, Sparks, Thall, Seeber & Kaufman, PC