Sign regulation guidebook helps communities find their way: Part 2

Signage is a defining characteristic of a community and a regulatory aspect of local government that must simultaneously protect free speech and community aesthetics.

Part 1 of this article introduces the Michigan Sign Guidebook: The Local Planning & Regulation of Signs and highlights important elements of sign regulations. Part 2 reviews the legal issues associated with sign regulation and provides an overview of the remainder of the Sign Guidebook.

The vast majority of modern litigation over sign regulations concerns the right to free speech contained in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. In particular, the communityPrinciples of Good Signage cannot favor commercial speech (communication that involves only the commercial interests of the speaker and the audience) over non-commercial speech (such as expressing an opinion on an issue or a candidate). The general conclusion drawn from many court cases involving sign regulations nationwide is that regulations must be content-neutral. Put differently, if the ordinance can be implemented without reading the message of the sign, then the regulations are content-neutral.

While content cannot be regulated, the time, place and manner of signs can be regulated. For instance, a community can restrict the display time of temporary signs, limit signs to a minimum spacing distance and regulate the size, height, design, materials and lighting of signs. Other legal issues that arise with respect to sign regulation include due process and equal protection guarantees by the Fourteenth Amendment and protection against ‘takings’ under the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution (see chapter 6 in the Sign Guidebook for a comprehensive review of the legal context and Constitutional considerations and chapter 7 for detail on the relation of local sign regulation to state and Federal laws).

The Sign Guidebook includes ten regulatory principles for signage (chapter 8), a discussion of special cases and problems (chapter 9), and an outline of major options for sign regulation (chapter 10). A fundamental sign regulation option is whether the community adopts a separate sign code or includes sign regulations within the local zoning ordinance. Cities, villages and townships have the option to adopt a separate sign code under their police power authority. One advantage to doing so is that a sign code separate from the zoning ordinance allows the local government to implement an amortization scheme – the removal of nonconforming signs after a designated period of time. The amortization of nonconformities (uses, structures, signs) is not permitted under the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (PA 110 of 2006, as amended), as a result of court interpretation on the topic.


The final part of the Sign Guidebook includes review of four model sign ordinances (chapter 12), discussion of standard ordinance components (chapter 13), considerations for adoption, administration, and enforcement, and extensive appendices with detailed legal references and other technical resources. Clearly, the Sign Guidebook is an essential resource for nearly every Michigan local government.

To purchase a copy of the Michigan Sign Guidebook for $35, visit the Scenic Michigan website. If education and training on sign regulation is needed in your community, contact a Michigan State University Extension land use educator at our Land Use Education Services webpage.

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