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More signage regulation coming

First, they came for the billboards. Then they came for the attention-getting devices. Now in the crosshairs: Roof signs and other potential menaces to Houston’s natural beauty.

The city of Houston is poised to pass a major revision to its decades-old ordinance governing more than 60,000 signs on display at area businesses, proposing numerous changes that supporters hope will improve the city’s appearance.

Critics agree that the changes will be vast — eliminating roof signs, regulating electronic displays and diminishing the maximum allowable height and square footage of on-premises signs by nearly half in certain cases — but strongly oppose the changes because they could hurt small businesses and initiate a citywide makeover they say Houston does not need.

The debate has sparked age-old tensions about the character of Houston, and whether the laissez-faire approach that has governed its appearance, leading to a little-controlled bonanza of signs and development — is ideal for the city’s future.

“People come here and they are consistently shocked by the city’s appearance and they often ask us how we let this happen to our city,” said Anne Culver, executive director of Scenic Houston, an organization that advocates for more regulation of signs and billboards. “Site consultants say all the time that they’re told not to put Houston on their lists because of pollution, the heat and how it looks. This is a step in the right direction.”

Michael Berry, a former city council member who has spoken against the measure on his radio show, said the timing of the changes — coming in one of the worst economic downturns in a generation — could not be worse.

“Houston didn’t grow so big so fast because of an activist City Hall,” he said. “Less government, no zoning, low taxes and a strong business climate may be ‘ugly’ to some, but that’s why we’ve prospered. This will hurt small business at a time when they are struggling.”

I cheered the billboard ordinance. I’m more ambivalent about the AGD ordinance, but am okay with it. This one, I’m not so sure about. I guess I just don’t perceive the problem. Maybe I just don’t notice the types of signs and displays in question, or maybe I do notice them and am just not all that bothered by them, I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a case to be made that Houston would be more aesthetically pleasing with a stronger ordinance in place, and I’m sure the existing one needs some kind of updating, but the case for this particular revision is not self-evident to me. Given the recent loss in court over enforcement of the to-be-updated AGD ordinance, I’m leery of something as broad as this. I’m not saying I can’t be convinced that this is a worthwhile pursuit, but someone is going to have to make an effort to do so.

Having said that, Berry’s lame, archaic, knee-jerk sloganeering is about the least credible argument you could use to dissuade me. Let’s put aside the fact that this is about the worst time in my memory to make the “regulation is bad” claim as an axiom. Even if it is the case that in whatever history of Houston Berry has in mind a “non-activist” City Hall contributed to the city’s growth in the past, why is that necessarily the case now? We all know how much, and how rapidly, Houston has changed in recent years. Who’s to say the way we’ve always done things is the way we should always keep doing? That’s granting Berry’s premise about Houston’s governance, which may or may not be on point anyway.

The proposed changes were produced over the course of a year by a 14-member task force that included city officials, commercial real estate agents and representatives from the sign-making, restaurant and apartment industries. Task force members said the proposals represented a compromise between business interests and consumers, and many stressed that the new requirements will not be imposed on businesses with existing signs. Only new developments and businesses greatly remaking their signs will have to comply with the new regulations, which would go into effect Sept. 1, if passed.

The measure appears to have the support of council members, who last week noted the array of stakeholders who participated on the task force. The proposed rules sailed through council’s Quality of Life Committee in May.

[…]

Despite efforts by city officials, some industry officials have spoken out against the changes, in some cases even though it was not immediately clear how their companies would be affected. Several officials representing national pharmacy chains such as Walgreen’s asked City Council not to pass the ordinance last week, citing concerns over the new electronic sign rules.

Some commercial real estate agents have speculated that Houston will lose a perceived advantage from developers eager to do business in a place with few regulations.

Mike Harp, development director for Cedarwood Development, a commercial real estate company, said businesses with existing signs would have an advantage over competitors that come into the market after September. In particular, he said, there are not adequate provisions for exceptions to the rules.

“I can agree that we need our rules to be stiffer, but when you turn it over to a bureaucracy and administrative people, you very much lose your edge, in my mind,” he said. “It’s a problem if you set down a black and white ordinance that may not apply common sense to a specific site.”

I can accept the argument that Houston’s current regulations may be attractive to some developers. It does not necessarily follow that this is a net positive for Houston. Maybe a more stringent set of rules would have a greater benefit, in terms of people and businesses wanting to relocate here. That’s Anne Culver’s argument, and it’s one I’m receptive to, but I’m also receptive to Mike Harp’s point about the new ordinance possibly favoring existing businesses over new ones. I can see the pros and cons, I’m just not sure which set is bigger. I’d like to hear more about this. What do you think?

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5 Comments

  1. Greg Wythe says:

    One big, giant, gaping hole in Michael Berry’s talking point (from the story’s sidebar):

    “Business owners do not have to change existing signs; the law would apply only to new signs or to major changes to existing signs.”

    Reading through the listed changes, the issue isn’t really even whether or not you can have signage on the roof. It’s how big the signage can be. There would certainly be a viable argument for allowing some exceptions to handle any case-by-case oddities that will eventually come up. But this seems to be a pretty modest regulation of roadside distractions already in place.

    Maybe if Berry can identify some business owners who have been thinking about coming to Houston, but are now reconsidering if they cannot place a giant inflatable gorilla in the parking lot, a billboard on their roof, or an LED sign out in front of their office overlooking a busy freeway (as was the case w Berry’s former real estate office along 59). that’s make for something more interesting to listen to rather than platitudes.

    It isn’t immediately obvious where any limiting impact would come from where Olson reports “Critics agree that the changes will be vast….” Specific limitations from potentially aggrieved rooftop sign owners; or some sort of comparison to other cities who have made similar limitations; or a more meaningful quote from someone involved in the process of developing the regulations would have been nice to see in the writeup, rather than the typical he said/she said formula of critic vs supporter.

    All that said, I do believe sentences such as “Some commercial real estate agents have speculated…” (while quoting all of ONE commercial real estate agent) really should be outlawed from newspapers.

  2. Greg, Just like Joe McCarthy, I have a list. A big, fat, list. It’s chock full of companies dying to come here, but ONLY if they can put up LEDs, with inflatable gorillas on top of that. But I refuse to show it to anyone.

    Kuff, I’ll concede “archaic.” I confess to “sloganeering.” But “lame”? That hurts. Why does it have to be lame? That’s the cruelest cut of all.

    As a slight rebuttal, let me pose this question: are businesses coming to Houston in droves? Is there a “pretty” city attracting more businesses? I don’t mean Shell’s world’s headquarters, I’m talking about small businesses. They thrive here.

    You fellas know a lot of people. Go ask the small business owners with signs out front if taking down the sign would hurt their business. If it would, then doesn’t it follow that it will hurt those small business owners that open up tomorrow? We’re not just talking about major companies, but dry cleaners, burger joints, and other small retailers.

    Finally, why isn’t it a fair argument that even if this regulation WERE worthwhile to make us all pretty, that this is a bad time to impose new regs?

  3. Michael, thanks for the feedback. You ask perfectly good questions, and I’m as interested in the answers as you are. I do talk to a lot of people, and an awfully large number of them, here and elsewhere, tell me they think Houston is ugly. I don’t know if that effect outweighs the perception of being a better climate for small businesses. I wish I did! What I do know is that assertions that one or the other is paramount are not persuasive to me. I’d like someone to show me some data – a study, a public opinion poll, something – that can help me get a better handle on this. That’s really all I want here.

  4. Greg Wythe says:

    **Go ask the small business owners with signs out front if taking down the sign would hurt their business. If it would, then doesn’t it follow that it will hurt those small business owners that open up tomorrow?**

    Michael,

    Given that the new regulations do not appear to dictate that new business not have ANY signage, but that the size of signage be regulated by size. The question is a non-starter.

    New businesses and new buildings will apparently be allowed to have signage. And based on the size dimensions listed in the article, there’s nothing terribly restrictive about them:

    * … no more than 8 feet high or 60 square feet
    * Reduce allowable sizes near busier streets by about 20 percent

    I do make the point that there should be a channel to request variances, but a quick check of signage of businesses on the way home does not suggest that these criteria are very limiting. I’d be shocked if such a provision wasn’t already included. But even still, there’s nothing about the requirements I see that’s warrants alarm among the non-AM-radio-listening universe.

    I should add that I also noticed, via electronic signage, that the old office of yours was leasing. Surely, with a nice blinking sign overlooking one of the busiest highway routes in town, I thought that place would have sold out by now. Maybe signage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

  5. […] that speaks to the efforts of the task force, so kudos to them for that. I’d still like to see a study or some other objective evaluation of the competing claims about our business climate and our […]