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Durango drafts new sign code rules to be ‘content neutral’

Changes were spurred by U.S. Supreme Court ruling
The city of Durango is updating its sign code to be content neutral, meaning there aren’t different rules based on content of the sign. Under the proposed code, residential properties could have any amount of yard signs as long as the aggregate amount of signage is no more than 24 square feet.

The city of Durango has drafted a new sign code that allows businesses and residents to keep temporary signs up for an unlimited amount of time, regardless of their content.

In other words, your neighbor may be able to keep that Donald Trump or Elizabeth Warren sign up indefinitely. And businesses could promote their super sales year-round.

The change came in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that says governments can regulate signs based on uniform rules, but they can’t have different rules based on the content of signs, such as religious, political and garage sale signs.

That means, as proposed, someone could keep a political sign up as long as a religious sign, or any other sign because the city cannot make sign rules based on content, said Colleen O’Brien, the city’s business development and redevelopment coordinator. They city in the past has mandated that political signs come down after an election, a rule now deemed unconstitutional because it is based on the content of the sign.

“If you have to read a sign to make a determination, that’s illegal,” O’Brien said.

Some communities have found a away around the rule by enacting strict sign codes but easing restrictions in the weeks preceding Election Day, which is allowed, as long as the rules are applied uniformly, regardless of content of the signs.

The city of Durango is updating its sign code to be content neutral, meaning there aren’t different rules based on content of the sign.

The draft code proposes allowing up to two temporary signs – meaning they’re not affixed or attached to a permanent structure – on non-residential properties. The “temporary signs” could remain up for an unlimited amount of time. But that doesn’t mean businesses have free reign to put up whatever signs they want. In the Central Business District and mixed-use neighborhoods, an aggregate area of 100 square feet of signs would be allowed. Just one of those signs may be a banner, and that banner may be 32 square feet, according to the draft code. It’s up to the businesses to decide how they want to use that aggregate 100 square feet, O’Brien said.

Residential properties could have any amount of yard signs as long as the aggregate amount of signage is no more than 24 square feet. In other words, residents could have two signs, each 12 square feet in size. Twelve square feet is the largest sign allowed on residential properties, according to the draft code, and those signs must be set back 5 feet from the property line. Residential signs could also stay up an unlimited amount of time, according to the draft code.

Temporary signs are also held to strict design standards, including that the sign must match the color scheme of the building, the background colors must be muted tones, bright colors are allowed for only lettering, trim, accents and logos, and reflective or glossy signs are not allowed in the Central Business District.

“For the most part, we tried to uphold the same standards we had before with language that was required after Reed v. Gilbert,” O’Brien said.

The city of Durango is updating its sign code to be content neutral, meaning there aren’t different rules based on content of the sign.

The new code would also give city staff the authority to approve or deny variances of the sign code. The city is also reducing the number of zones that have unique sign codes. The zones largely deal with permanent signs – such as those used by businesses and condominiums – and the allowance of aggregate temporary sign space.

The city is hosting a public meeting at 5 p.m. Oct. 29 in the Durango Public Library to discuss the proposed changes to the sign code, which were made in response to a Supreme Court decision – Reed v. Town of Gilbert – that found rules restricting signs based on content violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

The city has had to strike a balance in its new sign code between giving the community a means of communication and maintaining the character of the city, O’Brien said.

The city used guidance from the Supreme Court in drafting new rules dealing with time, place and manner of signs rather than content. In other words, the city is able to regulate how long signs stay up, when they can go up, where they can go up, what the look like and the size and number of signs, as long as the rules are applied uniformly, regardless of content.

The decision most impacted how cities across the country regulate temporary signs – things like real estate signs, garage sale signs or political signs. The Reed v. Town of Gilbert decision found it unconstitutional to regulate signs based on what is on them, making it illegal to treat real estate signs any differently than garage sale signs.

The Supreme Court case arose out of Gilbert, Arizona, where the Good News Community Church placed 17 temporary signs giving drivers directions to the church, but the town allowed only four such signs. The Good News Community Church sued the city after being told it was violating the town code, a legal challenge that was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.

Durango’s new rules regulate signs based on type and use. That means the city will look at what kind of sign it is – like a yard sign or a banner – rather than what is on the sign when deciding what to allow and how to regulate it.

The city will further generate ideas for a draft of the new sign code at a City Council study session scheduled for 4 p.m. Dec. 11, after which the Planning Commission and the City Council will hear the ordinance in January and February.

bhauff@durangoherald.com

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