Scottsdale aspires to the creation of equitable signage rules

Throughout any city in America signage and the regulations that surround them continues to be a precarious legal predicament in how municipalities say local proprietors can and cannot promote themselves. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

The city of Scottsdale is making an effort to create an equitable sign ordinance supporting both big-box enterprise and mom-and-pop storefronts.

Scottsdale City Council Wednesday, July 5 approved Ordinance No. 4315 that emboldens changes to the city’s zoning code city officials say creates more user-friendly signage rules.

The latest changes to sign rules are focused on permanent signage regulations while in late May the local governing board approved zoning text amendments to its rules regulating temporary signs within city limits.

“We are basically here to establish a more user-friendly and contemporary sign ordinance,” said Scottsdale City Planner Andrew Chi during a July 5 public hearing at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.

“We are also trying to maintain the integrity of the existing ordinance. We are proposing to remove sign requirements that are based on specific uses. We are going to regulate signs based on the zoning district, the street classification, the street frontage and development size.”

Mr. Chi says Scottsdale is looking to simplify existing sign rules.

“We are eliminating conflicting requirements and ambiguity in the code,” he said. “We want to still maintain sign aesthetics and keep Scottsdale the way it looks.”

A view of permanent signage at the Scottsdale Oak Plaza. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Since the 1960s the city of Scottsdale has been trying to find an approach that regulates the usage of various signs — signs that include marquee, hanger and A-frame — within city limits while maintaining the aesthetics of the community.

Both in 2003 and 2007 Scottsdale City Council agreed to changes to its zoning code specific to free-standing signs on commercial development sites and an effort to reduce clutter in municipal rights-of-way.

In June 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the issue of temporary signs, which stemmed from the case: Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

In that case a local church owner argued his signs could not be held to a different legal or zoning standard than other types of temporary signs.

The Supreme Court agreed and since that ruling cities and towns throughout the nation must now provide signage rules that don’t regulate those signs based on content.

The Supreme Court ruling also spoke to temporary signage, sign experts contend.

Later that year, the Goldwater Institute filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court on behalf of Scottsdale businesswoman Aaron Shearer, owner of Green Bee Farmer’s Market, who argued the city’s regulations of signs was in violation of her rights to free speech.

“Changes to the city’s sign codes were not initiated because of (the) Reed case, but that case was considered when writing the updated code,” said Scottsdale Public Affairs Director Kelly Corsette in a July 13 statement to the Independent.

“The city’s sign code was constitutional in the past and continues to be so.”

A change for compliance?

Officials at the Goldwater Institute says the latest updates to the city’s sign code is not in-step with the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling.

Adi Dynar

Adi Dynar, a staff attorney at the Goldwater Institutes Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, contends new rules enacted by the city of Scottsdale don’t go far enough in meeting the requirements of the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling.

“On a basic level, they require sign code enforcement officers to read the sign to determine which set of regulations apply,” he said July 11 in a written response to emailed questions.

“Such a sign code, the Supreme Court held in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, is unconstitutional. Scottsdale also requires certain speakers to obtain permits but allows others to post permitless signs, such separate treatment based on speakers or based on what the signs say violate the state and federal constitutions.”

The Goldwater Institute says it will be amending its complaint with the city of Scottsdale.

“We are going to amend the complaint within the next few weeks because the new sign ordinance does not cure the constitutional problems,” said Jennifer Tiedemann, the Goldwater Institute communication manager, in a July 11 email.

Mr. Dynar says the Scottsdale sign code doesn’t pass constitutional muster.

“We are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, which means the clients want the freedom to exercise their constitutional rights under laws that are content-neutral and applied in an evenhanded manner,” he said of what he is seeking for his client in this matter.

Patti King, Arizona Sign Association director, says changes at the city of Scottsdale are efforts to come into compliance with the June 2015 Supreme Court ruling on how cities and towns can regulate local signage — both temporary and permanent.

“They didn’t really make very many changes that effect the small business owner,” she said in a July 11 phone interview. “They changed the sign ordinance to make it read compliant. A sign code cannot be managed on a content basis — that is the main proposed change they just modified.”

While Scottsdale made changes to uses of signs they didn’t make any adjustments to the allowances of signs within zoning districts, Ms. King says.

“They only really changed how they describe the signs — they can’t be named in a certain fashion,” she said.  “They can only be regulated by time, place and manner.”

How this helps the small business owner is marginal at best, Ms. King contends.

“They had to strike a lot and make requirements so it is not content based, but to be honest I don’t know how this affects small business owners,” she said. “What we are going to see that there will be more temporary signs used by businesses legally than in the past. I think what we will see is more of those and that can help small businesses.”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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