by Jay Lawson
It has grown clear in recent weeks that a municipality’s sign ordinance, despite having been crafted meticulously with standard concepts and wording, can abruptly feel outdated with changes in the signage industry and marketing habits of local businesses.
That seems to be the case in the Town of Webb, where a proliferation of small-run signs—now quickly and inexpensively produced thanks to current technology—have become a popular way for non-profit and business entities to publicize events and communicate with prospective customers.
And, thanks to today’s technology, they are cheap to produce in both small or larger runs.
These signs, almost exclusively the domain of political campaigners in years past, now consist of weather-resistant vinyl, making them reusable for years and more cost-effective.
Posted on the front yard, they provide quick, easy ways for retailers to promote their latest offerings.
Other styles include quick-print banners and posters.
But, according to the Town Board, and Code Officer Andy Getty, posting of these signs can amount to violations of town law.
Businesses are to display signage according to ordinance restrictions and conditional use requirements, Getty said.
And there are limits to both quantities and square footage.
Anyone wanting special accommodations is welcome to make a request to the Webb Planning Board, Getty said.
They can also make a request of the Town Board, should the location be on town-owned property.
Another problem is that with all the signs being produced, many are finding their ways onto non-compliant locations.
The local ordinance is very clear that you can’t put signs in roadside right-of-ways, Getty said.
So, what happens when the Code Office finds a non-compliant sign?
Getty said his staff is tasked with taking action.
Sometimes they communicate with the offender, but many times not, dependent on the circumstances, Getty said.
The ones that were not communicated with dealt with event-type signs or others placed in roadside right-of-ways.
The signs were simply removed from these prohibited areas, Getty said.
“Signs” that were stapled to utility poles along Main Street and elsewhere, were simply removed also.
As for commercial violations, Getty said his staff has reached out to a number of business owners.
“We’re keeping a pretty comprehensive list of what we’re doing and who we’ve talked with,” he said.
“We’re reaching out to those people and giving them copies of the law.”
Code staff also explains the process for seeking approval of noncompliant signage.
“So, there is communication. But the ones that are placed in the roads: No communication,” Getty said.
Getty addressed the Town of Webb Board at its Audit Meeting on Monday, July 20.
He spoke of recent signage concerns and confusions in the community.
He also spoke of ordinance inadequacies that have come to light as a result.
For instance, the ordinance only addresses issues pertaining to “political” signs—those that serve a democratic free-speech function.
The recent proliferation of anti-NYS SAFE-Act signs would certainly fall into this category.
But, what about similar-style signs that advertise the local Farmers’ Market?
Getty said that historically his office has interpreted the ordinance as specific to free-speech signs.
Such signs, deemed to be political—can be posted on private property with owner permission.
Farmers’ Market signs would be seen as violations, according to this interpretation.
Andy Getty admitted a recent upsurge in temporary event signage has caused his office to reexamine the ordinance in an attempt to ascertain intent.
“As of the middle of last week, after great discussion in the office, I came to the conclusions that not-for-profits—or civic organizations, as the ordinance would [view] them—could place a temporary poster-type sign on private property with that person’s permission,” Getty said.
Of course this would require one or more “donors” for strategic property locations, he added.
Getty suggested that the Board consider adoption of a reasonable time limit for such displays.
“But, in reading the ordinance more accurately and looking at it, and trying to interpret what it’s saying—the [Farmers’ Market] signs are allowed without a permit,” he said.
Other revisitations may be in the offing as well, according to Getty.
“This process is also making me create a list of things that we need to go back into the Ordinance and clarify,” he said.
For one thing, no guidance exists for temporary signs, according to Getty.
“There’s an ‘exempt’ sign category. There’s no terminology for ‘temporary,’” he said.
That may need changing, he told the Town Board.
“So this process is bringing to light that the Ordinance is not perfect. But I do believe that the Ordinance is very clear on the road issue and the street right-of-way issue. It’s very clear about what signs require permits, and what signs do not; and what constitutes a sign,” Getty said.
Councilwoman Kate Russell agreed that the Ordinance is falling short in 2015, but not excessively so, she said.
“I don’t think the codes are way far off. I think some of the wording (needs updating), as Andy has pointed out,” she said.
So those committing major sign violations should not expect relief, she said.
“It’s not that there are issues per se with the law. It’s with the people not following the code,” Russell said.
Councilwoman Mary Brophy Moore agreed that clarification is the primary concern.
“We should be looking at this as an opportunity…to clean things up, both on paper and in the town,” she said.
Councilman Mike Ross asked Andy Getty about moving forward with potential ordinance revisions.
“In September or October I [can] present a list of what I perceive as problems that should be clarified and corrected within the sign package,” Getty said.
Getty also suggested the town come up with alternatives to help local groups achieve their advertising goals.
In the meantime, Council-woman Russell asked that Getty’s office be meticulous in its communications with sign violators.
Getty described the process his office customarily undertakes.
“We’re not going to walk into private property and remove someone’s sign. We won’t do that. If it’s in the road right-of-way, we might just take it. That’s public land. But we’re not going to walk up to someone’s store and take a banner off the wall. I’m not going to do that sort of thing,” Getty said.
And ultimately, the code was adopted for a reason, concluded Councilwoman Russell.
“We really do need to get back on the right track and be the advocates for our own law,” she said.
Mary Brophy Moore agreed, telling Getty she supports his mission of code enforcement.
“Because we’re the ones that asked you to start this campaign,” she said.