Williston overhauls sign regulations

by Rachel Laqua, Williston, ND

Modernized ordinance balances City, stakeholder needs

The City of Williston’s current zoning ordinance was originally passed in 1983. While in many instances this ordinance functions well, some updates have been needed, particularly since 2006, when Williston began experiencing an uptick in population and activity due to economic growth in the Bakken area. Though the city is working on an updated Unified Development Code (UDC), which would replace the current zoning code, some interim updates to the zoning code have been necessary. In many cases, these have been changes to address modernization of standard business practices. Signage updates, however, were more complicated.

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Sign technology has changed a great deal since 1983, as have modern marketing practices. The 1983 zoning code did not address modern signage needs, which was recognized by the city. An attempt was made to address this in December of 2012 with an ordinance that updated some needs of the city such as adding emergency locator signs and adding some new definitions. The city also made several smaller updates to sign regulations in April of 2013, June 2014, and February of 2015, each working to add specific regulations such as billboard location, dynamic messaging regulations, and land development signs.

With the UDC, however, it was recognized that the city needed a larger overhaul of sign regulations that truly took into account the wide variety of development types occurring in Williston as well as modernizing regulations. Staff began to work on that item in 2014, but quickly determined that sign regulations – particularly temporary sign regulations – were something that many citizens had strong opinions on and needed to be dealt with sooner than with the UDC.

Based on complaints regarding the proliferation of temporary signs in Williston, which were common due to the fast pace of development at the time, city staff put together a committee and memorandum on temporary signage. Utilizing American Planning Association’s Planning Advisory Service (PAS) reports, city staff analyzed the model ordinance provided, as well as regulations in cities around the country and region. The PAS report gave examples of both permissive and restrictive ordinances, and staff found examples of both styles within the state and region, as well. In the end, staff worked with the committee to determine that the ordinance style which best fit Williston was a permissive ordinance, which allows a great deal of signage but has strict timelines and standards for maintenance. The permissive style of ordinance also attempts to balance the need for businesses to be able to utilize temporary signage with stated comprehensive plan goals, which look to create a feeling of permanence within the city.

In late 2015, this ordinance, which modernized permanent signage standards and included updated temporary sign standards, went out for public review, and garnered a fair amount of attention and comment. In particular, negative comments were received from several temporary sign companies in town and were heavily publicized in the newspaper, though not much focus at that time was placed on the permanent sign changes. While staff and commissioners held meetings with concerned citizens, including the Homebuilders Association, Chamber of Commerce and Board of Realtors, staff became aware through the American Planning Association of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that had been handed down earlier in 2015, Reed vs. the Town of Gilbert.

Reed vs. the Town of Gilbert completely altered the legal landscape in which sign regulations exist. Historically, signs were regulated based on their content – not to the extent of denying free speech but, for example, by regulating categories of signs as “real estate signs” or “commercial event signs.” A result of Reed vs. Town of Gilbert is that this is no longer allowable. Signs cannot be regulated on content. Signs may still be regulated based on size, material, location, and duration. The changes to how signs can be regulated was significant, and caused a year’s delay in passing the city’s proposed sign ordinance. In that time, the city spent several months gathering information and working with the City Attorney to update the proposed draft of the sign ordinance to reflect those needed changes. The final version of the ordinance is unavoidably detailed, but reflects a compromise on the part of all stakeholders.

During the year in which the city researched the effects of Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, staff also held meetings with various stakeholders. There was a great deal of public input about the effects that new temporary sign regulations would have on businesses and non-profits, including from the two temporary sign companies in town. In the end, through a great deal of discussion, the city ended up keeping limitations on the number of permits and length of permits (15 days per permit, with eight permits annually per property) while creating two types of permits and reducing the cost of the permits – an individual permit, where a property can buy a permit for an individual event for $25, and an annual permit, where a temporary sign company can buy an annual permit with a one-time $1,000 fee, with reduced administrative processes when a property requests a sign from the company.

Other challenges during that year included redefining some sign types that staff had spent a great deal of time working on with a group of local realtors in previous years, including “land development” and “construction” signs, which, because they were regulated by content, were no longer allowed to be called out specifically. Finding a workable solution that met the day-to-day needs of developers and realtors, addressed the aesthetic and enforcement concerns of the city, and stayed within the legal bounds of Reed vs. Town of Gilbert was a challenge, but with a lot of education and discussion, the final result seems to be working.

Education was a huge component of the ordinance effort. There was a lot of misinformation that was put out about the ordinance, and it was particularly effective when it came from a non-profit saying “We won’t be able to advertise our events anymore because we won’t have a place to put the signs and we can’t afford it.” In this case, it was vital to explain the full situation to that non-profit. For example, one particular park in town has a parking lot which looks directly onto a main intersection – it’s a great place for advertising local events! On the other hand, the park district wasn’t being asked for permission to place signs there, and it felt like the situation needed to be regulated, because on some days, three to four portable signs were being placed within the parking lot. The non-profit needed to understand that the property owner (the park district), not just the City, was in favor of changing the status quo, while staff needed to understand that the original proposed permit price was unaffordable.

In other instances, educating the public meant holding meetings with most realtors and the realtor board, explaining why “real estate sign” was no longer a definition in the ordinance, and what was intended to replace it. In this instance, the city’s hands were tied – Reed vs. Gilbert means that the city’s ordinance could not single out a “real estate” sign, nor treat it differently than any other sign type. Instead, the ordinance has an allowance for a “fixed yard sign” on any commercial and industrial property, which needs to be placed into the ground and made of finished material. This sign is not considered a temporary sign (hence needing to be placed into the ground), and does not require a permit. This is intended to serve the purpose of a real estate sign. This concept took a great deal of discussion, and explaining why the standard framing at the bottom of a typical 32-square foot real estate sign, which does not allow for insertion into the ground, would mean that it was counted as a temporary sign and would need to be permitted.

We also had numerous meetings with permanent sign companies, who used the opportunity to lobby for larger signs. They utilized some ordinances in the area that allow for very large signs or don’t have sign requirements at all, which meant that the city had to ensure that the proposed ordinance really was utilizing modern signage standards. To that end, the city looked at several cities in the area who had updated their sign regulations recently and determined that the proposed ordinance was proposing a slightly smaller freestanding sign size than allowable in those cities and subsequently updated the regulations in the proposed ordinance. 

In the end, the city ended up with an ordinance that allows for more permanent signage for most properties, allows for more temporary signage, creates allowances for non-residential residentially zoned properties such as churches, creates flexibility for large commercial and campus-style properties, and represents and accommodates the needs of stakeholders. It was a long process, but the city has a modern, workable ordinance now.

Rachel Laqua is the Principal Planner for the City of Williston, ND. Rachel has been living in Williston for five years, since graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Master of Urban Planning and Policy program in 2012.

Article republished from the NDPA SPRING newsletter 2017 in May 2017