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As with many things in the public space, signs are heavily regulated to ensure the safety of traffic and aesthetics of our communities.
Local regulations can be difficult for sign companies to navigate, and even more complex for outdoor advertising companies who want to install a new digital billboard display or convert an existing static billboard to a digital display. With three tiers of government imposing billboard regulations (federal, state, and local), zoning codes and permit requirements vary widely—even from one road to the next.
That’s why implementing a digital display for the first time—be it a billboard or on-premise sign—can be more complicated than it might seem, especially when the goal isn’t just building a sign, but regulatory compliance and effective visibility for years to come.
Here are some helpful tips to make this process successful.
When it comes to getting a permit for a digital LED display, the first step is always the same: Research.
“The first things I ask the customer is, ‘do you know what you’re allowed to do?’” says Neil Whitaker, Regional Sales Manager at Prismview.
At first, the answer is probably no—at least at the very beginning. When you don’t know which ordinances are in place, you can’t ensure that your plan for a sign conforms.
Learning which rules to follow requires a deep dive into federal, state, and local law. And you have to get granular: understanding each zone and approved use. “I’ve seen situations where on one side of the street there are electronic signs, and on the other, they’re not allowed,” Neil says. “That’s how divisive the cutoff can be.”
“Our company specializes in unique displays: that’s what we do,” said Steve Sluder Sr., Systems Integration Engineer at Prismview. “Anyone can make a square box and put LEDs on it, but Prismview specializes in the unusual, the challenging.”
Regulations also impact usage. For example, accepted sign brightness can vary greatly from location to location, even within a single zone due to the proximity to sensitive neighboring uses. Most of the time, signs cannot blink or flash. So first, you must work with a local expert to figure out what the rules are—and which ones apply to your particular location.
Getting a permit is one thing. But what if there’s no applicable regulation in place? Does that mean you can build first, then ask for forgiveness? Not likely.
In many cases, you may want to try to work through the legislative authorities to update the ordinances in place, both to allow for and outline specific usage guidelines for digital displays. This takes strategic and informed lobbying efforts to persuade regulators that the proposed sign regulation is not only safe, but also beneficial to the public.
Prismview helps with these efforts. “Often that means I’ll travel and testify before a Planning Commission, City Council or Legislative Committee, meet with residents or business owners from the community, and provide all the technical details and examples necessary to demonstrate that digital displays would be compliant,” says Jared Johnson Regional Sales Manager at Prismview.
It’s more than just helping our customers—it’s about advancing the industry. “It gives us one more opportunity to plead our case and say these displays are safe, they build business, and they increase tax dollars to the community,” Neil says.
The biggest asset when applying for a permit is to have data—and lots of it. This starts with the physical designs for your structure. Is the billboard far enough from the road? Is it engineered to current structural standards? Can it comply with the usage and brightness regulations of the ordinances? Gather all relevant information and create a thorough packet of designs, stamped and signed by your engineer, with a detailed site plan to support it.On the lobbying side, gathering proof takes a different form. It depends heavily on supporting your argument with legitimate, accepted studies (brightness, traffic safety and public opinion). The greatest consideration for digital signs is traffic safety. No one wants to authorize a product that will endanger the community.
"When you go into these cities, if you're not prepared, the last person that stands up is the one people remember."
— Neil Whitaker, Regional Sales Manager at Prismview.
So: do your due diligence. “Most people were concerned these signs would cause traffic accidents. But in reality a decade later and many studies have proved they don’t,” Neil says. Working with lobbying groups and sign industry organizations, the Prismview team collects data and compiles reports that prove this assertion. When it comes to changing a law, objective research data is key.
You’ve successfully made updates to the law and gotten the okay from the city to put in a digital display. But just because you may be approved to do what you please, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
"One thing to remember is that there is always “that sign” that’s aggravating to the public or the neighbors,” Jared says. “There’s always one sign that leads to regulators imposing unnecessarily strict regulations. You don’t want to be the owner of “that sign”.
Not only can your poor design, placement or usage of a digital display lead to stricter regulation for all digital displays down the line, it can also be detrimental to your brand. The people who say all press is good press are misinformed. Remember that digital displays in the public space have an important responsibility to communicate without distraction.
“The purpose of digital displays is to communicate well,” Jared says. “It’s about having enough presence in the environment that you’re communicating the message with the display without being irritating or obtrusive.”
When in doubt, you need to have someone on your side, someone who knows both the technicality of the digital display business and the details of sign regulation. The Prismview team prides itself on being a partner and consultant—far more than a manufacturer or sign provider.
“We’re available to help at the permitting level, to go through the process with our customer. We’re available at the municipal level, to help a city write an ordinance for digital billboards. And we’re available at a site-specific local level to come there and help get things done,” Jared says.
Even after the signs are live, there’s still work to be done that a good partner can help with. Complying with permits and municipal ordinances is a non-stop job. “At our Network Operation Center, we monitor nearly a thousand signs to make sure displays are operating correctly,” Jared says. Ongoing management is ultimately the difference between signs that do their jobs, and signs that get taken down.
If you know you need permitting work, reach out to our sales team, regardless of the stage you’re in. Chances are, we have done what you need before—and we can get you from point A to point B faster—and with less headache.