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Wednesday, July 19, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Signs fail to point the way at Planning Commission

Though it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, local sign regulations could drastically change with the implementation of CodeNEXT. While that is still a ways away, that didn’t stop the image of Austin’s homey neighborhoods being overrun by digital billboards from haunting the review of a draft code amendment at last week’s Planning Commission meeting.

The ordinance was initiated primarily to make the city’s sign regulations legally defensible in the wake of recent U.S. Supreme Court and Texas Appellate Court opinions on the subject, such as the Reed v. Town of Gilbert decision. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that the content-based restrictions on signage enforced by the municipality of Gilbert, Arizona, had encroached on the freedom of speech of a local church.

“What the (sign) ordinance really focuses on is eliminating content from the parts of our code that pertain to non-commercial and on-premise sign regulation,” said Assistant City Attorney Brent Lloyd. He repeatedly reassured the commission that the scope of the amendment was narrow, but some commissioners still saw far-reaching portents in the language. In particular, Commissioner Patricia Seeger raised a red flag relating to the modification of the regulations within the University Neighborhood Overlay.

The code as it is now states that “a sign is prohibited above the second floor of a building, except for a sign that displays only the building name,” but the ordinance would change the phrasing to “no more than one sign per building façade may be placed above the second floor of a building, except for any sign that is engraved, cut into the building surface, or otherwise inlaid to become part of the building.”

Seeger interpreted this revision as a relaxation of the regulation. Although Lloyd said that he did not know of any municipality sign regulation that completely banned signage above the second floor, commissioners Trinity White and Greg Anderson also saw loopholes in the new wording. Anderson asked if a McDonald’s on the first floor of a mixed-use building, for example, could advertise its logo where the building name used to be located.

Lloyd said that staff had constructed the wording from a “general planning standpoint,” but that the phrasing for that section could be amended. He cautioned, however, that imposing a sign prohibition in UNO that does not exist anywhere else in the code would be a mistake. “There’s very little that the Supreme Court decision affects in terms of basic sign regulation authority,” he said, “so unless we find some compelling reason not to go forward with that language, that language will be what goes in the Council backup.”

Vice Chair Fayez Kazi said that he agreed with Lloyd. “I think it’s more important to understand the definition of on-premise than it is to limit whether it’s engraved only,” he said.

Anderson made a motion to approve staff recommendation of the ordinance, but to go back and see if the phrasing of the passage discussed could be improved and to make sure that this code amendment would not open up the possibility of digital signs, and Seeger seconded. The motion passed 11-0-1, with Kazi abstaining. The ordinance is scheduled to go before Council Aug. 17.

Photo by Tim Patterson made available through a Creative Commons license.

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

CodeNEXT: CodeNEXT is the name given to the land development code rewrite process undertaken in the early 2010s by the City of Austin.

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