The City of Rolla has requested an ordinance to amend the Rolla Planning and Zoning Code by deleting and adding language on signs, which surfaced after the business community pressed the city for changes because some members felt they were penalized because of restrictions and a misunderstanding of the current sign ordinance that limits portable signs in front of businesses, such as Sandwich signs and temporary Flag signs, along with permanent yard signs in residential areas, said Rolla Planning and Zoning Commissioner Don Brown.

The request would require the city to pass an ordinance to amend Article III of Chapter 42, which is known as the Rolla Planning and Zoning Code, by deleting and adding language to Division 18 of Article III, which is known as Signs, for the particular purpose of permitting temporary and portable signs and ensuring that the free expression clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is not violated with the sign ordinance.

The Rolla Planning and Zoning Commission met on Nov. 13 to conduct a public hearing on the preliminary draft of the proposal that was presented by Rolla City Planner James Shields after the Rolla City Council met on July 16, and six local business owners and the Executive Director of the Rolla Chamber of Commerce Stevie Kearse spoke at the council meeting saying that temporary signs should be permitted.

“The city council met in July and at that time several business owners and the Rolla Chamber of Commerce requested some changes in the sign ordinance, even city council member Jim Williams made a motion to not enforce the current sign ordinance, and city council member Daniel Jones seconded it, unfortunately for them but good for the city you can’t pass a resolution to not enforce your laws,” said Brown.

Brown continued to state that Rolla Mayor Louis Magdits appointed a committee to study the issue and report back to the council, but it would take over a year, “so the city expects us to deal with it in one meeting tonight, evidentially the motion by council member Williams was not ignored as there has been a large increase of residential temporary signs that seem to pop up all over town recently like dandelions.”

In September, members of the Community Development Department and the City Administrator met with the five business owners, a representative of business owners, and one local real estate agent to discuss the most recent draft of the new sign ordinance. While there were some concerns about temporary off-premise signage in residential areas, most of the group were satisfied with the provisions in the latest draft that pertained to the type, size and duration of temporary signage permitted, according to Shields.

The proposed ordinance's critical aspect was to ensure the new ordinance included the free expression clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, said Shields when he presented the proposal to the Rolla Planning and Zoning Commission. The reason behind this was the 2015 Reed v. the Town of Gilbert U.S. Supreme Court Case made it so regulations on signs can’t discriminate against the speaker nor can signs be regulated based on the message, said Shields.

However, should the Rolla City pass the proposed ordinance that Shields presented to the Rolla Planning and Zoning Commission, people could expect an excessive amount of business signs 24/7, 365 days a year, similar to the excessive election signs, said Brown.

The reason the City of Rolla ordinance was changed in early 2005 was due to the city expecting problems with signage, and the city didn’t have ordinances to deal with signage problems. 

The signage problems included a large number of portable signs on wheels and electrified signs parked along the highway that were very bright and some even had strobe lights, which blinded drivers, said Brown.

One service station had 18 portable signs on their driveway that were dangerous and unsightly at the time as well; Brown added before he stated several issues he had with the proposed changes the City of Rolla had requested in the new sign ordinance.

“I have several issues with the proposed changes, but they mainly pertain to the portable signs in the residential areas of our town. If passed we will not be known as the city of trees like St. James, or the city of fountains and boulevards like Kansas City, but instead the city of portable signs,” said Brown.

The City or Rolla’s proposed ordinance allows an excessive amount of portable signs in residential areas where there are approximately 1,300 business licenses in Rolla, approximately 8,000 housing units with about 7,200 to 7,400 housing units inhabited, noted Brown.

“The proposed ordinance limits the total footage of signs to 24 sq. ft. per property. Most portable signs are approximately 2-to-3 sq. ft., and since you would allow 24 sq. ft. this would allow seven to eight signs per site multiplied by 8,000 housing units, so 64,000 portable signs in the city of Rolla,” said Brown.

Additionally, the proposed ordinance would allow temporary signs in a non-business area, yet there are some deductions to this, as Marias Tatandra and other housing arrangements in Rolla do not allow portable signs on any of their properties, said Brown.

“Our current Temporary Sign Regulations ban all temporary and portable signs, but we give exceptions to particular types of signs that are not regulated by Division 18 of the Rolla Planning and Zoning Code, and you can see the similarities between the Town of Gilbert’s regulations and ours,” said Shields.

The public purpose and case law of the City of Rolla proposed ordinance states traffic safety and aesthetics are the two public purposes that have been held as valid reasons to regulate signage; however sign regulations are susceptible to claims of violations of the free speech clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

When such claims involve noncommercial speech, the courts analyze these claims with scrutiny, a type of scrutiny that is difficult to survive. Strict scrutiny requires the government to show there is a compelling state interest behind the regulation. That the regulation is not too broad, and the least restrictive means of regulation were being used.

Speech regulation is content-based if a law applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed.  In addition, the majority opinion of Reed v. the Town of Gilbert states that “laws favoring some speakers over others demand strict scrutiny when the legislature’s speaker preference reflects a content preference.”

For these reasons, a sign ordinance should be content-neutral, which includes refraining from discriminating between speakers, and a content-neutral code will regulate the time, place, and manner in which a sign is posted, not its message, states the public purpose and case law of the proposed sign ordinance.

In a concurring opinion of Reed, a non-exhaustive list of ways in which signs can be regulated was submitted in the prosed ordinance. Such permitted distinctions include the maximum duration periods in the Town of Gilbert for non-political, non-ideological, non-commercial “qualifying event” signs, which are allowed up to 12 hours before and one hour after an event. Political temporary signs are allowed up to 60 days before and 15 days after elections, said Shields.

The maximum sign sizes in the Town of Gilbert are 80 sq. ft. for Homeowners Association signs; 32 sq. ft. for Political signs in a non-residential zone; 20 sq. ft. for Ideological signs; and 6 sq. ft. for Qualifying Event signs.

Rolla's current Temporary Sign Regulations has a blanket ban on temporary and portable signs but allot exceptions to particular types of signs that are not regulated by Division 18 of the Rolla Planning and Zoning Code.

City of Rolla Existing Temporary Sign Regulations:

Division 18 of the Rolla Planning and Zoning Code bans all temporary and portable signs except for those that are listed as exempt.

Exemptions:

-- Banner signs, limited to 30 days per four months and messaging that is not considered to be an official flag, as those are fully exempt.

-- Political signs, limited to 14 days after an election, but not limited to any time before the election.

-- Real estate, lessee, construction signs, restricted to only residential zones, an area of six or 34 sq. ft. and obligated to be removed within 14 days of sale date or 30 days of construction completion date.

-- Residential garage, estate, or public auction signs.

-- Signs advertising drives or events of a charitable, educational or religious nature, restricted to six sq. ft. and a posting time period that correlated with the duration of the event and no more than 30 days a year.

In Reed v. the Town of Gilbert, the Town of Gilbert exempted three different types of noncommercial temporary signs, Directional, Political, and Ideological, each with its own size limits and time limits. Based on that fact, the city’s current temporary ordinance was found facially unconstitutional.

“So as one can see we definitely had to relook at this and look at the constitutionality of our sign regulations,” said Shields. “We had a couple of goals, the biggest one was to create a sign ordinance that was content-neutral and does not have different regulations for different speakers.”

The proposed code that was developed states:

Sign Regulations, Residential: Only minor changes to number and area requirements were made to signs in residential zones. The current Code indicates that in addition to address numbers and nameplates, which are exempt up to a certain size and number, all multi-family or commercial properties within residential zones are permitted one detached sign limited to 60 sq. ft., and one attached sign limited to 2 sq. ft. per lineal ft. of wall length.

The new sign code permits any use or structure not considered a single-family house or duplex located in residential zones one pole or ground sign per entrance or exit and one wall sign per building -- any permanent sign is limited to 64 sq. ft.

The proposed ordinance permits all residentially zoned properties an unlimited number of year-round temporary signs, as long as all signs together equate to 24 sq. ft. of an area or less combined with being less than six feet in height.

Altogether, these provisions were added, in part, to ensure free speech opportunities are provided at any given time of the year and to accommodate periods in history that encourage people to speak more than other times, such as political races and social movements, according to Shields, in addition to still attempting to protect the aesthetic quality of residential areas.

Additionally, temporary freestanding signs are permitted in residential districts. Signs that are considered more aesthetically degrading are not permitted, such as Inflatable signs and Feather banners.

All permanent signage in all zones are required to be on-premises signage, except that off-premise signage may be posted for no more than 14 days in any given quarter of a year. Lastly, any of the 24 sq. ft. of temporary signage for one- and two-family residences can be substituted with permanent wall, ground or pole signs.

Sign Regulations, Non-residential:

Except for permitting corner lots to have two detached signs without the requirement of 500 feet of separation, the size and number of permanent signs permitted in nonresidential districts did not change with the proposed revisions. However, the new proposed ordinance permits Electronic Message Center signs in non-residential signs without R-4 restrictions, except that it cannot flash, or play full-motion video or film display, or be within 100 feet of a residential district.

This was done because research has shown no correlation between Electronic Message Center signs and traffic accidents.

“There is this new technology it’s a lot cheaper, and there is no evidence at all that connects traffic accidents to Electronic signage,” said Shields. “Now there have been studies done that show that it can be more distractive than a regular sign, but there is no association or correlation between actual traffic accidents and electronic signage.”

The proposed ordinance also permits permanent mechanical movement and revolving signs in C-2 and higher zones and permits roof signs in C-3 and C-C zoning districts.

These three types of signs were permitted because they should not be any more distracting than electronic signage or large amounts of temporary signage, according to Shields.

Along with these permanent sign provisions, the proposed ordinance permitted each tenant space within a non-residential zoning district two temporary signs at any given time, unless the tenant space is locating a balloon sign or inflatable sign on the premises, in which case, they are only permitted that one temporary sign.

“This was done, in part, because inflatable signs and balloon signs can be very large and presumably are potentially more distracting, we permit these types to be up to 75 sq. ft.  in size and 24 ft. high,” said Shields.

The current sign code permits a liberal amount of sign copy area for nonresidential areas, which enables businesses to have large enough letter height to make signs legible from a safe distance. However, no mechanisms exist to control the legibility, size, placement and height of signs in a way that directly promotes traffic safety in a way that is science-based.

However, by adding temporary signage to the vast amount of permanent signage already permitted increases visual stimuli, which is related to delayed detection times, and degrades the aesthetic quality of the city, according to Shields.

Apart from the idea that broad sign regulations promote a thriving business community that could result in the protection of the tax base, without science-based controls on signage such as speed limit in areas, the extent to which Rolla’s current proposed sign regulations promote valid public purposes is limited to limiting the aesthetic degradation and amount of visual stimuli that excessive signage may cause by limiting the amount and height of signage, which could promote traffic safety and aesthetics. 

In addition, the extensive amounts of copy area permitted do not restrict legibility, which could also promote traffic safety. Lastly, while constitutionality is mandatory for any law, the new Code protects people’s freedom of speech, according to Shields.

There were no protest petitions or official comments, but the city did meet with some business owners and a real estate agent in two different meetings, said Shields.

The action requested was for the Planning and Zoning Commission to recommend the approval or denial or the conditional approval of the City of Rolla’s sign ordinance request.

A motion by the Rolla Planning and Zoning Commission by Mathew Crowell to send the newly drafted ordinance off to the Rolla City Council with the Rolla Planning and Zoning Committee approval for proposed changes that Shields presented failed to pass. Therefore the commission sent the proposed ordinance to the Rolla City Council with their disapproval.

The reasons behind the Rolla Planning and Zoning Commission disapproval included real estate signs. The proposed code is in accordance with the ruling by the Supreme Court, said Shields, which dictates you can’t put any real estate sign in your yard with the name of the company because if it has any advertisement on it, it becomes off-premise signage, since a person is advertising something that is not taking place there.

Secondly, the Planning and Zoning Commission didn't agree with the proposed ordinance being complaint driven. "I don’t think that goes in a code how you enforce something. I don’t think anybody's code does that because that comes from up top,” said Shields.

The third reason the Planning and Zoning Commission had for disapproval of the sign ordinance: too many gray areas in the proposed ordinance.

Rolla Planning and Zoning Commissioner Walt Bowe said, “I don’t foresee this being done any different than what has been done. It’s still complaint driven.

“It’s still going to be when a new business comes into town and starts complaining everybody’s signs are going to go away for a week or two than they are going to start popping up again because everybody knows they can.

“I think the part when you were saying you guys can now write some penalties into it, that’s great, I think that needs to be there. But I also think we need to be proactive on the management of making sure that it doesn’t happen.”