City instructed to change sign ordinance

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published February 9, 2016

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In order to conform to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the city of Sterling Heights should take steps to amend its sign ordinance, according to the city’s legal counsel.

During a Jan. 26 special meeting on strategic planning, city officials discussed a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, and its ripple effects on municipal law.

The high court ruled June 18, 2015, that a town’s regulations on noncommercial signage can be unconstitutional when they are not content neutral and the law is not narrowly tailored to address a compelling governmental interest.

According to Sterling Heights officials, the ruling basically said that a sign ordinance becomes problematic if the ordinance relies on what the sign says.

“If you have to read the sign to figure out how the ordinance is applied to it, then the ordinances are probably going to be unconstitutional unless we can prove the strongest of governmental interests for discriminating based on the message and then show that the ordinance is as narrowly written as possible to accomplish those governmental interests,” said Sterling Heights Assistant City Attorney Don DeNault Jr.

However, DeNault explained that it’s likely that some types of message-based regulations are still fair game. Factors such as whether the sign’s information conveys something temporary could still be legally considered.

“Six of the justices, at least, are OK with having function-based categories rather than calling them content-based categories,” DeNault said.
City Planner Chris McLeod agreed that this doesn’t mean that the city has to give up on regulating signs altogether.

“Temporary signs will likely see the biggest changes: for sale signs, grand opening signs, those types of signs,” McLeod said.

McLeod said the city could take a closer look at when signs go in and how long they stay up. Revisions could include a system of online sign registrations, he said.

In addition, McLeod said the city should take into account changes in the sign industry, such as signs with more movement, illumination and diversity of materials.

According to officials, this year the city will draft the necessary provisions. Those provisions will be reviewed and will be given a public hearing before the Planning Commission. Then the City Council would ultimately have to approve the revisions. A revised permit and registration process will also need to be created, McLeod said.

Mayor Michael Taylor said he wants updates to the sign ordinance to take a closer look at electronic signs.

“The city has done some research on it,” he said. “I think … the sign ordinance is a bit antiquated on how we deal with LED signs.”

Find out more about Sterling Heights’ strategic planning process by visiting www.sterling-heights.net/strategicplanning. Or call (586) 446-2489.

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