This page presents a general overview on sign control and sample sign code provisions from Washington cities and counties, including examples of comprehensive sign ordinances and provisions addressing specific types of signage.
County and city authority to regulate signs is based upon their "police power." However, since signs are a form of communication, that authority is limited by the free speech provisions of the state and federal constitutions. Since signs are also a form of property, county and city authority to regulate existing signs is also limited by the "takings" provisions of the state and federal constitutions. Because of the constitutional issues involved in sign regulation, we strongly recommend that your legal counsel review any proposed sign ordinance.
Selected Court Decisions
Federal Court Decisions
- Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 576 U. S. ____ (2015) – The U.S. Supreme Court held that a town sign code that treats various categories of signs differently based on the information they convey violates the First Amendment. The sign code defined the categories of temporary, political, and ideological signs on the basis of their messages and then subjected each category to different restrictions such as on size, number of signs, and the permissible duration of display.The court held that the sign code's provision were content-based regulations of speech that do not survive strict judicial scrutiny because the town did not demonstrate that the code’s differentiation between temporary directional signs and other types of signs furthers a compelling governmental interest and is narrowly tailored to that end.
- City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43 (1994) – The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Ladue, Missouri ordinance that prohibited all residential signs, except those falling within certain specific exemptions such as small "residential identification" signs and signs advertising the sale, lease, or exchange of property. The Court concluded that the ordinance violated the First Amendment's free speech protection by suppressing too much speech. Although the Court invalidated Ladue's restrictions, it did not provide any meaningful guidance as to what would be a permissible content-neutral regulation of signs on residential property.
- Ballen v. Redmond, 466 F.3d 736 (9th Cir., 2006) – The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Redmond's portable sign regulation ban on some commercial signs was an impermissible restriction on commercial speech and therefore unconstitutional. At issue were Blazing Bagels' employees standing on the street wearing signs advertising fresh bagels.
- G.K Ltd. Travel v. City of Lake Oswego, 436 F.3rd 1064 (9th Cir. 2006) – The court held that the city's restriction on plaintiffs' pole sign was not content-based and that the city's interest in regulating pole signs - in preventing visual blight and ensuring travel safety - was significant. The city produced strong evidence of the need for the sign restrictions and the form the restrictions should take.
- Lindsey v. Tacoma-Pierce County Health Dep’t., 195 F.3d 1065 (9th Cir. 1999) – The court reversed a ban on outdoor tobacco advertising, holding that such local action was preempted by the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act.
- McClanahan v. City of Tumwater, No. 11–cv–5623-RBL (W.D. WA, Mar. 6, 2012) (Order denying motion for preliminary injunction) – The city removed yard sign containing political speech that intruded into sidewalk. The court, denying the plaintiff’s motion, held that the city removed the sign not based on its content but because it was located in the right-of-way
Washington Court Decisions
- Resident Action Council v. Seattle Housing Auth., 162 Wn.2d 773 (2008) – The court held that the public housing authority's rule banning all signs on the outside of tenants' doors violated the First Amendment because: (1) the tenants retained control over the outer surfaces of their doors; and (2) a total ban on signs was unnecessary to support various interests claimed by the authority, such as avoiding clutter and avoiding the cost of refinishing damaged doors. The court determined that it did not matter, as concerns the application of the First Amendment here, that the tenants leased and did not own their units.
- Sanders v. City of Seattle, 160 Wn.2d 198 (2007) – An easement granted to the City of Seattle for the limited purpose of providing pedestrian access to a monorail station was not a public forum; the oral policy which required war protestors using the easement to hold stick-mounted signs down was a reasonable regulation on speech under the First Amendment and article 1, section 5 of the state constitution.
- Kitsap County v. Mattress Outlet, 153 Wn.2d 506 (2005) – Held that Kitsap County's sign ordinance, which the county claimed prohibited Mattress Outlet's use of raincoat-clad workers as offset advertisements, is an unconstitutional restriction of commercial speech.
- City of Seattle v. Mighty Movers, Inc., 152 Wn.2d 343 (2004) – The court upheld the city ordinance restricting posting on utility poles, concluding that the ordinance was enacted to achieve legitimate governmental purposes, it was reasonable in light of the purposes served by utility poles, and it was content and viewpoint neutral. The court also held that utility poles were not a public forum because they were an essential part of the city's power system and they had not been a traditional public forum or historically held open to the general public..
- Collier v. Tacoma, 121 Wn.2d 737 (1993) – The state supreme court found unconstitutional a provision of Tacoma's sign code that prohibited the placement of political signs earlier than 60 days before the date of the election for which the signs were intended. Tacoma's requirement that political signs be removed within seven days after the election was not challenged.
Comprehensive Sign Control Provisions
- King County Zoning Code - Sign Requirements, Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES) Customer Information Bulletin No. 20A, 12/04/2007
- Kitsap County Code Ch. 17.446 - Sign Code
- Pierce County Code Title 18 B - Development Regulations - Signs
Advertising on Parked Vehicles
The state's Model Traffic Ordinance, which may be adopted by reference by cities and counties, prohibits parking a vehicle on any "highway" (public right-of-way that is open to the public for vehicular travel) for the purpose of displaying advertising, displaying the vehicle for sale, and selling merchandise from the vehicle. WAC 308-330-436. Some jurisdictions have also adopted regulations prohibiting advertising signs on parked vehicles.
- Bellingham Municipal Code Sec. 11.33.050 - Parking for Certain Purposes Unlawful
- Ferndale Municipal Code Sec. 10.08.050(D) - Prohibited Parking
- Issaquah Municipal Code Sec. 18.11.480(M) - Listing of specifically prohibited signs and devices - Parked vehicles, trailers or carts with signs
- Poulsbo Municipal Code Sec. 18.170.050(J) - Prohibited Signs
- Seattle Municipal Code Sec. 23.55.003(3) - Signs prohibited in all zones
Community Service and Bulletin Board Signs
This section includes community signage, such as community bulletin boards, service club signs, and information sign kiosks.
- Maple Valley Municipal Code Sec. 18.50.010(E)(6) - Bulletin Boards and (I)(4)(f) and (g) - Bulletin board design criteria
- Port Townsend Municipal Code Sec. 17.76.060 - Special Category Signs - Includes provisions for community announcement, service club, and community event signs
- Sammamish Municipal Code Sec. 21A.45.070 - Community bulletin board signs
- Seattle Municipal Code Sec. 23.55.015 - Sign Kiosks and Community Bulletin Boards
- Woodinville Municipal Code Sec. 21.20.070 - Community Bulletin Board Signs
With the proliferation of digital billboards, video displays, and flashing signs, the regulation of electronic signs has become a major issue for local governments. The relationship between digital billboards and driver distraction is a key concern.
- Research Review of Potential Safety Effects of Electronic Billboards On Driver Attention and Distraction, Final Report - Federal Highway Administration, 9/2001 - Useful study of this issue
- Ch. 468-66 WAC - See provisions relating to electronic signs, particularly WAC 468-66-030(1)(g)
- Digital Billboards: New Regulations for New Technology, Illinois Coalition for Responsible Outdoor Lighting, 5/2010
- Illuminating the Issues: Digital Signage and Philadelphia’s Green Future, by Gregory Young, 12/2010
- The Regulation of Signage: Guidelines for Local Regulation of Digital On-Premise Signs, by Menelaos Triantafillou, University of Cincinnati and Alan C. Weinstein, Cleveland State University
- Bonney Lake Municipal Code Sec. 15.28.115 - Animated Signs
- Kirkland Zoning Code Sec. 100.110 - Illumination Limitations on Electrical Signs
- Oak Harbor Ordinance No. 1553 - Readopts and amends sign code to allow electronic message center signs in certain districts, 5/06/2009
- Seattle Municipal Code Sec. 23.55.005 - Video Display Methods
Political Campaign Signs
Campaign signs are protected under the U.S. and Washington State Constitutions. Local government regulatory authority over political signs varies depending whether the sign is placed on private or public property.
Specific sign regulations addresses portable, hand-held, and sandwich board signs. These signs are also known as "human signs."
- Auburn Municipal Code Sec. 18.56.020 - Definitions (Z) (“Portable sign” means any sign made of any material, including paper, cardboard, wood or metal, which is capable of being moved easily and is not permanently affixed to the ground, structure or building. This also includes sidewalk or sandwich board signs, except those worn by a person.)
- Bellevue Municipal Code Sec. 22B.10.130 - Exempt signs or displays (L) Sandwich-board signs worn by a person while walking the public ways of the city
- Chelan County PUD Parks and Recreation - Sandwich Boards and Temporary Signs Policy
- Edmonds Municipal Code Sec. 20.60.080 - Temporary signs - See definition of portable sign, Sec. 20.60.005
- Everett Municipal Code Sec. 36.140 - Portable Signs
- Maple Valley Municipal Code Sec. 18.50.010(E) and (F) - Portable Signs
- Mukilteo Municipal Code Sec. 17.80.050(H)- Prohibited Signs - Human Signs in Right-of-Way
- Redmond Zoning Code Sec. 21.44.010(H) - Permitted Temporary Portable and Temporary Freestanding Signs
- Sumner Municipal Code Sec. 18.44.120 - Sandwich board/sidewalk signs
- Scenic America - Billboards and Sign Control - National organization whose mission is to safeguard the scenic qualities of America’s roadways, countryside, and communities
- Signage Foundation, Inc. - Organization dedicated to fulfilling the educational, research and philanthropic purposes of on-premises signage
- Signlaw.com - An informational site on the American law of signs, billboards, outdoor advertising, and related topics, by Randal R. Morrison