People putting up political signs in advance of the November election will find they have fewer restrictions on the regulations governing them, thanks to changes in the city's sign code.
The Albany City Council agreed June 27 to an overhauled sign code, which takes effect July 27.
Essentially, the new code regulates how big signs can be, where they can be placed and how long they can stay there — but not what they say, said Bob Richardson, city planner.
That wasn't always the case. The old code, for instance, had specific rules for political signs as opposed to, say, signs advertising a business. To know the category to which the sign belonged, a person had to read them.
"That’s the bottom line," Richardson said. "We can’t regulate what a sign says."
The updated code sets rules about sizes and placement for various sign types: signs meant to go on awnings or marquees, for instance, or signs placed in windows, or signs used by home businesses.
Content is not regulated, however. For the political season, for instance, the code allows signs to be placed in residential zones up to 45 days before an election and seven days afterward. The signs are limited to 4 square feet each and a maximum of 3 feet high. Other than those, the only restriction is that the property owner can have only as many signs as there are issues and candidates on the ballot.
As an example, say you had an election coming up in which voters had to decide on three ballot measures and two candidate races with two people running for each position. That means you could have a total of seven signs in your yard for up to 45 days before the election. Doesn't matter what the signs say — you could just as easily be advertising a garage sale or free kittens as urging a particular vote — but they can be up for only 45 days.
"In reality, it's more permissive than before," Richardson said.
And back to garage sales and kittens: Those signs anytime during the rest of the year fall under the "small, temporary sign" category.
One temporary sign no larger than 3 square feet is allowed for up to a full year. Again, doesn't matter what it says. It can even be political — but if it's put up outside the election period, only one is allowed.
(Note: You do get an extra temporary sign if you're selling personal property; for example, a real estate agent's "For Sale" sign can be on your property at the same time as your "Free Kittens" sign.)
The sign code doesn't apply to advertisements or slogans on vehicles, assuming the sign is painted on or is part of a wrap or magnet. But Richardson said it does apply to signs posted on vehicles in other ways, such as on a piece of plywood in the back of a pickup truck. That falls under the temporary sign category if it's parked on personal property, or under different city regulations if it's out in public.
Technically, Richardson said, both the old and new sign codes ask people to register their temporary signs, for free, with the city.
That's so, if a complaint is received, someone at the city can check to see when the sign was registered and make sure it meets the code for temporary signs. However, he said, few people ever have registered their signs, and there's no enforcement mechanism to make sure people do.
Multiple inquiries about sign regulations during the 2016 presidential election prompted the city to rethink its code, Richardson said. A review made staff members realize a number of provisions regulated signs based on content.
The review was timely in that it came on the heels of a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, "which made it clearer that local governments have a very limited ability to regulate signs based on their content," according to a staff report.
The new code does contain a provision about obscenity, which is prohibited as defined by Oregon law. That portion wasn't there before, Richardson said.
Richardson said it took city planners more than a full year to amend the whole code. Working with a consultant from Portland, they started in spring 2017 and decided in January 2018 more work was needed.
Once the old code is replaced with the new, it will be available online at https://www.cityofalbany.net/departments/community-development/drc/development-code.
Richardson said the new code makes no particular changes to commercial signs in terms of size, number or placement. He said he hasn't heard any comments from business owners to date.
Janet Steele, president of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, said she wasn't a part of the code overhaul and doesn't know of any issues the business community might have with it at this point.
"The business community is never happy with everything that’s in a sign code," she added. "We continue to monitor and would recommend changes if we felt it was necessary.”