New billboard regulations won’t be adopted this year

On Wednesday morning, City Council’s Committee on Rules opted to amend out a portion of a bill adding new sign controls to the zoning code that deals with controls to non-accessory signs. It reported favorably a version of the bill which contains only the regulations related to accessory signs, removing section 14-905.

The Planning Commission said it would prepare an additional set of amendments to the bill, No. 120430, for Council to adopt at its meeting of December 6th. Those amendments will remove all references to non-accessory signs throughout the bill, which Council will then likely pass at its meeting of December 13th.

The bill as amended overhauls the regulations for accessory signs in the city. It was drafted over several months last spring by a working group of the City Planning Commission, after City Council had adopted the new zoning code. The Zoning Code Commission had earlier decided not to re-write the signage regulations in order to get the rest of the code rewritten in a timely manner.

The bill clarifies the sign regulations by defining sign types, such as directional, wall, window, freestanding signs, and so on. It also defines sign characteristics, such as digital display and mechanical movement. It contains, in true zoning reform fashion, a decision tree to guide users through the necessary zoning and permitting process.

The bill contains a number of tables showing what sign types and characteristics are allowed in different zoning districts. In some low-density residential districts, for example, wall and freestanding signs with static illumination are permitted, while those with animated illumination, digital display, and mechanical motion are not.

The maximum area for wall, projecting, and marquee signs in CMX-2 and CMX-2.5 commercial corridors is 3 square feet per linear foot of building frontage. Freestanding signs in such districts are allowed at a rate of one per building; they may be a maximum of 20 feet high, and no more than 100 square feet total. Mechanical motion signs are permitted in such districts.

Witnesses submitting testimony in favor of the accessory sign controls at Wednesday’s hearing included Gina Snyder of East Falls Community Development Corporation, Henry Pyatt of New Kensington CDC, and James Wright of the People’s Emergency Center. These witnesses described the current accessory sign regulations as unwieldy, and said the new regulations would help clarify what signs are permitted or not for businesses working in commercial corridors. They said it would also help speed up the process for obtaining necessary sign permits.

Karen Fegely, director of the Office of Neighborhood Economic Development for the Commerce Dept., said the new accessory sign regulations represent a balance between user-friendliness, enforceability, good design standards, and support for small businesses.

“For example,” Fegely said in a prepared statement, “the existing code does not allow businesses on many neighborhood corridors to use their awnings as signs, although this practice is generally recognized as good design. The proposed amendments will rectify that.”

Fegely and others also said the new sign regulations would encourage compliance with the rules, where the current code incentivizes non-compliance.  

The Committee’s decision to remove the billboard controls allowed it to avoid an impending fight. The group Scenic Philly, formerly SCRUB, has proposed amendments to the non-accessory sign control portion of the bill that would limit the number of billboards allowed on a property to one and increase the buffer zone between digital billboards and residences, among others.

Representatives of Scenic Philly as well as the outdoor advertising industry were present at Wednesday’s hearing, but the Committee’s decision to pass the bill without the billboard regulations prevented an excess of testimony on those regulations. Committee Chairman Bill Greenlee promised the Committee would take up a separate bill on the matter soon, and encouraged the opposing sides to meet.

One witness, Michael McGettigan of Trophy Bikes, went ahead and testified on the billboard regulations anyway, asking Council to ban billboards altogether. The Committee seemed uninterested in that proposal. Eva Gladstein, deputy director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission confirmed that the sign control working group never considered banning billboards outright.

Contact the reporter at and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

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