It took more than two years and countless meetings, but the city has finally adopted an ordinance dealing with emerging sign technology.
At a Jan. 19 meeting, the Oklahoma City Council unanimously passed a measure that redefines the scope and location of Electronic Message Display, or EMD, signs, which use computer-generated graphics and video to promote products, services and announcements.
Under the new ordinance, signs ranging from billboards to church marquees would fall under three categories:
Level 1: Allows static messages to be displayed for at least eight seconds with subtle transitions that don’t have the appearance of movement. 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.Council members said they were trying to find the right balance of allowing signs while prohibiting an infestation of lights and displays. They didn’t want an all-out ban, like some New England areas, but they also didn’t want to turn some areas of Oklahoma City into a Las Vegas-style strip.
The most controversial aspect of the new ordinance dealt with signs in residential areas. EMD were already permitted in those areas, but the new measure makes it specific what types of electronic signs may go next to homes.
This mainly applies to churches and schools, which Ward 8 Councilman Pat Ryan said are the only types of entities he has found that would have such signs in areas surrounded by residents. The concern voiced by associations, such as The Neighborhood Alliance of Central Oklahoma, were that the new rules would expand EMD signage in home areas.
“I believe we gave the residential neighborhoods more protection,” said Ward 1 Councilman Gary Marrs. “But you cannot ignore the fact that in areas where businesses are allowed, businesses should be allowed to put up signs.”
Georgie Rasco, executive director of Neighborhood Alliance, said the organization was pleased with the final outcome.
“We were very pleased with Councilman Sam Bowman’s suggestion that the council revisit the issue in a year to assure the new ordinance is working like it should,” Rasco said.
“There were many neighborhood leaders and local citizens who took the time to contact their council person with their thoughts and concerns on this issue, and that kind of response is very heartening.”
The move for a new ordinance stretches back to December of 2007 when Mayor Mick Cornett organized a task force to study the matter and create updated rules. Marrs and Ward 4 Councilman Pete White served on the committee, as well as the Planning Commission chairman, a traffic commissioner, the planning director, a chief plans examiner, a representative of the sign industry and two business leaders.
After a submission to the city Planning Commission and several rewrites, the proposal was put forth to the City Council on Dec. 1, 2009, and set for a vote on Jan. 5. But after concerns were raised from residents and organizations, a vote was put off until the Jan. 19 meeting.
During the interim, amendments were added to the proposal, including a change on the definition of adjacent residential property and reducing the maximum size of Level 2 and Level 3 signs to 100 square feet.
Another amendment required that signs to be placed in specific city design districts, such as historic landmark areas, must receive approval from the respective design review committee.
The changes were made to help reassure residents an abundance of signs would not make their way into neighborhoods. However, some council members were dismayed at accusations they were intent on heading that direction.
“I think the concern of a proliferation of signs in residential areas is on a weak foundation,” Ryan said.
Citizens wishing to challenge a permit issued to a business for installing an EMD sign will have 30 days from the time the permit was issued.
But Municipal Counselor Kenneth Jordan remarked the challenge can only be based on narrow lines.
“It’s not a protest on the merits of the sign being there,” Jordan told council members. “It’s just whether they (the city) made a mistake issuing the permit.”
In other words, a protest can be made on the merit that the city issued a permit for a Level 2 sign in a Level 1 restricted area, not on whether the sign is of redeeming value to the area.