Tucson’s Sign Code Revision Project Moves Forward

By: Rory Juneman Esq.

The City of Tucson (“City”) Planning and Development Services Department (“PDSD”) is currently in the process of revising the City’s Sign Code. This project (the “Code Revision”) began a year ago as a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert. In Reed, the Court held that a municipality cannot impose “content-based” regulations on signage unless that regulation is narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest (the highest standard of judicial review, and very difficult to meet). For the City, Reed meant that the Sign Code’s content based regulations – such as those for real estate and political signs – likely violate the First Amendment’s free-speech protections and need to be removed.

Leading up to the City’s decision to address Reed, City staff and various stakeholders had become concerned that the Sign Code was overly complicated, outdated, inflexible and too prescriptive, leaving little room for creativity. In addition to directing City staff to update the Sign Code to comply with Reed, Mayor and Council also directed PDSD to simplify and modernize the Sign Code. Although the Code Revision is still in process and subject to change, some highlights of the latest version include:

  • Addition of a Master Sign Program (“MSP”) - allows a development to propose a unified, site specific sign package that can deviate from technical Sign Code provisions as long as the MSP meets certain standards.  An MSP will be particularly helpful for larger commercial developments that have unique signage needs.
  • Business District Signage – the regulations for signage in commercial and office zones have been simplified and now provide consistent signage allotment based on street frontage length.
  • Premises Definition – the definition of premises has been expanded to allow for adjacent developments under separate development plans to be considered one premises for signage purposes (i.e., can share common signage).

In mid-July 2017, the City’s Planning Commission and the Citizen’s Sign Code Committee each voted unanimously to recommend the current draft Code Revision. Over the next few weeks, PDSD staff will continue to meet with various stakeholder groups, including the Metropolitan Pima Alliance, Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, and the Tucson Metro Chamber to discuss the business community’s remaining concerns with the draft.

The Code Revision’s next step is a Mayor and Council study session, currently scheduled for September 19, 2017.  A Mayor and Council public hearing likely will occur on October 17, 2017, where the fate of this Code Revision will be decided.    It will be important for the business community to remain productively engaged in this process.  We will report and results of this process in a future newsletter.

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