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Signs of old age

The problems with aging grandfathered signs.

November 25, 2013
KEYWORDS signage / signs
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As sign restrictions get tighter and tighter, owners with aging signs are left with signs in which their impact is waning.  Regulators are attempting to pass, and in some cases are succeeding, in passing codes which do not allow for the updating of signs to modern working standards.

These efforts are aimed at restructuring the streetscape into a modern planner’s idea of utopia. Utopia comes with a price: Higher property taxes. So most regulations have an underlying economic goal and are not merely implemented to improve safety or esthetics. By lowering signs to small monuments, burying power lines, requiring more costly architectural construction and “Sherwood Forest” level landscaping the city “improves” itself at the expense of the investor and then bills him higher taxes for the imposed requirements.

Many owners feel trapped with signs which:

  • Are no longer in code
  • Need repairs, and/or
  • No longer project a good image for the business.

Such signs costs owners volume as consumers assume that the signs represent the condition of the whole property and may choose to patronize someone else's newer facility..

Good planning and review of the options by a professional may provide new insights into how to accomplish what the owner needs while giving a better look to the city and the passing motorists.

The sword which cuts both ways

As these signs age, the city finds itself with a dilemma. The intention was to update the look of the street, but instead the street, subjected to these limitations, looks less like Utopia and more like “Bug Tussle.” 

The aging streetscape sends shoppers to those new regional shopping areas with the cookie cutter shops and restaurants, which are duplicated in every city in the U.S.  This sends the revenues in these areas even lower and retail spaces start to empty. This counterintuitive approach actually damages a retail area and creates a long expensive path back to revitalization.

Some cities realize that the great limitations placed on business signage does not work.  The other edge of the sword is a great place for common interest negotiation. Cities, in many cases, are willing to entertain creative ways to update those aging signs in order for them to look better today.

The law

Cities structure the limitations of grandfathered signs in many ways. Some refuse any change to a sign at all while others limit the repairs to the sign to a specific percentage of the sign. For example, a city may only allow 40 percent of repairs. This may be based on square footage or value.

Most cities allow for the change of faces but not all. Others will allow for changes within the structure of the bounding perimeter of the sign. Face changes should not be viewed as repairs.

There are legal precedents regarding the issues surrounding retrofitting non-conforming signs. For example, a regulator may not require you to maintain a sign and then terminate your rights for complying with the mandate. Consider the following New York Court decision:

 

IN RE: 149 FIFTH AVENUE CORP.

IN RE: 149 FIFTH AVENUE CORP., Petitioner-Respondent, v. James CHIN, et al., Respondents-Appellants. -- May 13, 2003

BUCKLEY, P.J., ANDRIAS, SAXE, LERNER, and MARLOW, JJ.

Howard S. Weiss, for Petitioner-Respondent.Drake A. Colley, for Respondents-Appellants.

Judgment, Supreme Court, New York County (Edward Lehner, J.), entered March 26, 2002, which granted the application pursuant to CPLR article 78 to annul the determination by respondent New York City Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), dated August 7, 2001, that petitioner's nonconforming use had been discontinued, unanimously affirmed, without costs.

The evidence of record shows that, as early as 1923, a large advertising sign was painted on the north facade of the building now owned by petitioner located at 149 Fifth Avenue. The sign remained on the building facade for decades and although its continued presence was not consistent with a subsequently enacted zoning resolution, the sign was permitted to remain as a protected nonconforming use.  Respondent BSA, however, held herein the protection accorded the sign forfeited by reason of the sign's removal for some 27 months, commencing in August 1996, to permit legally mandated building facade inspections and repairs. While, pursuant to Zoning Resolution § 52-61, discontinuance of a nonconforming use for a continuous period of two years may operate to strip the use of previously afforded protection, we hold that the Resolution may not be reasonably read to authorize termination of petitioner's protected nonconforming use under the particular circumstances presented.  Where, as here, interruption of a protected nonconforming use is compelled by legally mandated, duly permitted and diligently completed repairs, the nonconforming use may not be deemed to have been “discontinued”within the meaning of Zoning Resolution § 52-61 (see Matter of Hoffman v. Bd. of Zoning & Appeals, 155 A.D.2d 600, 547 N.Y.S.2d 657, lv. denied 75 N.Y.2d 708, 555 N.Y.S.2d 691, 554 N.E.2d 1279). A contrary reading of the subject Zoning Resolution, to permit or, indeed, require the termination of a valuable property interest, even where such termination is triggered solely by the owner's need temporarily to cease the nonconforming use in order to satisfy a legal mandate, would raise a most serious question as to whether the Zoning Resolution purports to authorize an unconstitutional taking.

Retrofitting

Don’t be afraid of new ideas. New twists on old ideas have kept old standard U.S. companies alive for generations. Think back to all the Coke slogans and campaigns launched over the years and yet it is still Coke today. Coke has been repackaged many times and is always kept relevant to the times.

Working with professionals who can visualize your sign and site graphics in new ways can lead to a revitalized interest in your wash and help strengthen volumes. When presented with a sight a real pro can see the signs constructed and in place. This talent can bring a new, expansive array of options to the owner and the regulators.

A great sign designer will not be constrained by the need to use the same cabinet and limitations of the old sign. Owners should allow for the free flow of creativity by the imagination of the professional in these cases. 

Innovative design can have the inspectors and planners trying to help the owner meet the regulation in order to get the new sign, because the City wants the Sign!

Careful presentation and selling of the new sign ideas to the city is key. The planners who say no, have to realize that to say no to this great design, is to live with the old tired sign, on their street, for untold years.

Revenue and Volume Loss

Retrofitting your sign is a great way to remain relevant in your consumers’ minds.  Updating your old sign will breathe new life into your location. Volumes lost may begin to return as passing motorists rediscover your location, again.

Perry Powell is a carwash consultant. He specializes in Sign Design and construction, restructuring quick turn arounds, business model changes and improvements, management methods and sales processes using the consumer behavioral science of neuro-marketing. He can be reached at 817-307-6484, perry@perrypowell.com or www.perrypowell.com.References may be viewed on LinkedIn.

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