Raleigh Listens to its Business Owners, Change May Come Soon

“It takes more time to get a sign permit in the city of Raleigh than it does to get an ABC permit to sell alcohol,” explains Raleigh, N.C., City Councilor Bonner Gaylord. That helps explain why the city’s small business owners have long resented their city’s unnecessarily expansive sign code and arduous permitting system.

Businesses have a First Amendment right—and a need—to truthfully advertise their goods and services. Yet local governments across the country implement restrictions that stifle small businesses and prevent them from utilizing visually pleasing advertisements to attract passing consumers. 

Raleigh’s current law restricts businesses from using more than four different colors for their signs, a big point of contention among local business owners. John Kane, owner of Kane Realty, notes that the four color restriction “makes the signage very ineffective, and it becomes very homogenous. I would urge [city council] to adopt a policy that encourages innovation and creativity and eliminates a lot of these arduous restrictions.”

To make matters worse, the recently passed Unified Development Ordinance will restrict businesses from using more than 30 percent of their overall window space for advertising, once the city planner’s office completes it’s rezoning of the city and the city council signs off on the new grid. The new code also defines the area four to seven feet above the pavement as “head space” and restricts storefront owners from covering more than five percent of this specific area. That poses an obvious problem to proprietors and customers alike because most people’s eyes fall within that range.

Not every sign will be subjected to the 30 percent rule, though. Travis Crane, a planning and zoning administrator for the city, explained in a phone interview that if a store owner wishes to hang a sign supporting a political candidate, that sign would not cut into their allotted space. The distinction allows for stores to advertise effectively for the political bids of elected officials, but not for their own goods and services. One of the stated goals of the regulation is to “[prevent] adverse community appearance.” Apparently commercial advertisements corrupt the city’s image more than identically sized and located political signs.

When one Raleighite complained late last year about an electronic sign at a nearby business, they persuaded the city council to consider yet another round of regulations which would eliminate the use of flashing electronic signs, among other miscellaneous restrictions. But Raleigh’s disillusioned small business owners banded together to protest the proposed measures. And when over 100 business owners attended a city council meeting to defend their First Amendment rights, the city council got the message.

City Councilor John Odom, a member of the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association and Shop Local Raleigh, came out against increasing restrictions, explaining that “this change is one that will not help small businesses or any business in Raleigh but will hinder growth, visual appearance and creativity among our business community.”

As a result of the outcry, Raleigh’s city council has tabled the proposed ordinance, and instead elected to create a window signage task force comprised of 10 private citizens to review the proposed ordinance. The council aims to form the committee at their meeting on May 20th. If this committee is formed, it will then have the opportunity to offer an opinion on the proposed ordinance as well as existing sign regulations and would be expected to do so on June 15th.

It is possible that the committee will determine that the entire sign code is out-of-date and needs revision, a move that would be well-received by small business owner and Councilmember Mary Ann Baldwin, who commented that “about 25 years ago, Raleigh cleaned up all the ugly signs, but we cleaned up too much. Our sign ordinance doesn’t allow for creativity. We need to loosen up a bit.”

The First Amendment applies to all speech, not just political or artistic speech. In Dallas, the Institute for Justice represented a number of small business owners who were facing fines of $1,000 a day for placing small signs in the wrong part of their stores’ windows. Unfortunately, the court denied their request to stop issuing fines for the duration of the case. The city then told them: drop your suit or face $300,000 in accumulated fines. As the business owners could not face this crippling possibility, their suit died before the court issue a final ruling.

Signs that violated Dallas’ code by occupying certain window space would have been deemed acceptable had they conveyed a political message instead of a commercial one. But the Constitution does not make a distinction between different types of speech, and governments do not get to choose which messages are acceptable.

Dallas should serve as a cautionary tale for Raleigh’s city council: these laws are unconstitutional. City governments are always better off working with their citizens, and as of now, it seems like Raleigh’s city council understands that sentiment.

Raleigh’s city council should work with its entrepreneurs to create a law that will enable businesses to exercise their freedom of speech, beautifying the city with liberty and creativity.

-- Phil Applebaum

Phil Applebaum is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice

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