From the neon glow of Las Vegas to the rustic charm of Park City, how cities regulate business signs can play as important a role in their future appearance as zoning laws, development zones and green-space preservation.
Realizing that, numerous cities along the Wasatch Front have begun to tackle their respective sign ordinances. Some cities, such as Centerville and Provo, may soon adopt entirely new ordinances. Others, such as West Valley City, simply want to stay ahead of the game with minor retooling.Whatever the extent, the close attention to sign ordinances reflects the concern that local leaders have over the possibility of unchecked growth within their cities, said Kirk Brimley, public relations director for Young Electric Sign Co.
"Utah has recognized that signs need to be controlled," said Brimley, who has worked as a consultant for more than 1,000 cities revising their ordinances. "They are trying to eliminate clutter."
Establishing those guidelines, however, has proven to be a daunting task for many cities. Often, the drafting of a sign ordinance can take well over a year, with public hearings, extensive research of different city ordinances, consulting with professionals and opinion polls all playing major roles in the final result.
In many ways, the regulation of signs compares to a high-wire act, with the proper balance kept the entire time, Brimley said. This proves especially valid when dealing with businesses, who require signs to survive, and citizens, who would prefer their cities to remain quiet, peaceful, uncluttered and attractive.
Also, the personality of the city should be reflected, Brimley said.
"Cities ought to be individual. You can't have a cookie cutter approach."
An analysis of various Utah cities reflects the effectiveness of that individuality approach, Brimley said.
"Every sign has good and bad qualities, and reasonable limits for each area need to be set," he said. "But you can have tasteful, attractive signs in almost any setting, and with any ordinance."
Many of the cities currently looking at their ordinances have turned to some of the seasoned veterans, such as Brimley, for advice. Also, the cities have begun to analyze their neighbor's ordinances, to see what works and what doesn't.
In nearly every sign discussion, one city that is continually pointed to as an example of what works is Sandy. Their ordinance, which received a major rewrite in 1990, has completely changed the face of the city, said Brok Armantrout, Sandy City's zoning administrator.
Essentially, the Sandy ordinance has two unique characteristics: no tall pole signs and uniform, city-wide regulations.
For many cities, restricting businesses to monument, or ground, signs would threaten commercial growth because many larger store and restaurant chains practically require the higher advertising. Yet Sandy, which recently won a national award from the American Planning Association for its ordinance, has not experienced that problem.
"This is a very attractive city to do business in," Armantrout said. "If any businesses have been scared away, we haven't heard about it."
Cleaning up the city's appearance was the primary reason for the revised ordinance, Armantrout said.
"(Before the revised ordinance) we looked like your typical country bumpkin town," he said.
Of course, the changes took a little time. By now, though, most of the older signs that were allowed to remain have been removed; many of those signs the businesses took down willingly when they realized no competitor would have an upper hand in advertising.
While many places contend that signs are necessary for the commercial viability of a town, resort towns often argue the opposite. In Park City, for example, the sign ordinance prohibits anything higher than six feet.
"We wanted to maintain our historic mountain resort community," said Park City Planner Alison Kuhlow. "We didn't want to look like Anytown, U.S.A. When people come to vacation, they come to Park City."
Tourism drives the local economy, and businesses that might run from such restrictions in other places come to Park City regardless. Many national chains, in fact, have battled with the city about the size of signs, the fact that only earth tones can be used on the signs, and the prohibition of neon. None has won, yet most have still come, Kuhlow said.
"It is difficult when dealing with national chains that have logos," she said. "But they want to be part of Park City."
One place where businesses haven't had to fight for their right to signage is Layton, a city in the midst of rapid commercial growth, especially along I-15. Although the city ordinance only allows pole signs along I-15 to extend 45 feet high - not as high as many other cities - some city officials feel that the city was too liberal in drafting their current ordinance.
"There was a lot of give and take, and I think we may have given too much," said Layton City Planner Doug Smith.
Controversy, however, didn't necessarily involve incoming national chains making big demands.
"We weren't concerned about scaring them off," Smith said. "We were more concerned about accommodating our current, local businesses."
Like most cities, however, a perfect ordinance is like shaping clouds, because everyone has a differing opinion and that changes as time progresses.
"It's a constant refining process," he said. "You'll never have a perfect ordinance."