New ordinance could dramatically alter use of electronic signs

The Oklahoma City Council is expected to take up a new ordinance that could dramatically affect the use of signs throughout the city at its Tuesday regular meeting.

A proposal has been put forth that would place new guidelines concerning the size, scope and operation of advertising and business signs. The focus of the proposal deals with EMD, or electronic message display, signs, which are usually computer-generated signs with lights, graphics and sometimes video.

A task force was put together back in December 2007 to deal with the issue, and after two years of meetings and discussions, submitted its proposal for the council's consideration. The proposal has been amended several times, especially by the Planning Commission, which had several problems with the original language, said city Planning Director Russell Claus.

Under the proposal, the city would implement three levels of EMD signs:

"Level 1 allows static messages to be displayed for at least eight seconds. It would be the only type of EMD signs permitted in residential areas, except for along major arterial roads.
"Level 2 allows text and graphics that appear to move or change in size. Messages may scroll across the sign.
"Level 3 allows animated graphics and full-motion video with no restrictions of message length.

There are also new size limitations. Level 1 signs could not be taller than 8 feet and 100 square feet in size. Level 2 and 3 signs could go up to 200 square feet in certain commercially zoned areas.

All currently existing signs that exceed the new size requirements would be grandfathered into the new ordinance.

These were some of the problem areas for the Planning Commission:

"The primary difference relates to the operation and placement of Level 2 and 3 signs," Claus told the City Council on Jan. 5.

"They wanted to restrict these signs to the downtown area. They were concerned about traffic problems and nescience."

At the Jan. 5 meeting, Ward 2 Councilman Sam Bowman expressed concern about certain commercial sign heavy areas of the city, like around 63rd and Western, and how some signs in that area could expand from 25 to 200 square feet. But Ward 4 Councilman Pete White said there is nothing stopping businesses from doing that now, only the operation of the sign would be different.

White, who was a member of the task force, said one of the main reasons for the ordinance was to bring uniformity to businesses seeking sign permits from the city, instead of city staff having to make a lot of judgment calls about signs.

Claus indicated in his remarks that Oklahoma City is one of the first cities in the country to really tackle this issue.

"The task force looked at a lot of different cities; it was really hard to find anything consistent across the board. They all had completely different views."

Members of residential areas also voiced concern about the ordinance, or rather the fact they were not included in the discussions. The task force consisted of two council members, the Planning Commission chairman, a traffic commissioner, the planning director, a chief plans examiner, a representative of the sign industry and two business leaders, no one from any of the neighborhood associations.

The Neighborhood Alliance has sent out notices urging citizens to contact council members and voice their opinion on the matter. Georgie Rasco, executive director with the Neighborhood Alliance, suggested proposing the following amendments to the ordinance:

"Carve out the areas that currently have some type of design review, such as historic preservation districts and the urban design districts.

"Limit the size of electronic signs to 75 square feet.

"Assure that organized neighborhoods are notified of all permits for EMD signs that are within 300 feet of their neighborhood boundaries and are given the right to protest if they choose.

Photo by Marianne Pickens.