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The Sign Variance Process


By: Perry Powell



The sign variance process can be very daunting. Cities can range from easy to absurd in the approaches they take in the variance process. The secret to achieving a desirable outcome can be in the details of preparation. The successful variance hearing must be artfully and thoughtfully carried out.



Let’s start with why you should engage the city in such a variance request. Sign codes are written to the median or norm. In other words, any situation that falls outside the norm needs further review by all parties concerned. The owner of a business considering the impact of a sign code that does not meet the needs of his business may do well to consider the loss of revenue against the aggravation that is required to appeal to the variance board. The increased revenues will out weight the aggravations very quickly if the attempt is successful.



The 5th amendment of the constitution guarantees the right of any citizen of the United States to due process. In other words, anything that is decided by government can be appealed to a higher authority until the higher authority of the U. S. Supreme Court hears or refuses to hear the appeal. Set in the natural environment of a sign permitting process, the federal courts have held that the appeal to the variance board must be a legitimate process granting reasonable relief to the effected parties.



Simply stated, the process must respond to legitimate hardships by granting reasonable relief or the due process rights of the appellant have been violated by the city. The variance process is a little like getting a mortgage. You must give them the information they need in a form they need and can use in order to have a desired outcome.



The city with a legitimate process is looking for three things:


(1)Hardship: A hardship is something about your location that causes the norm, set forth in the code, when applied to your property not to result in equal performance of your sign as compared to other commercial signs.


(2)Not unfair to other businesses: If granted will the board be granting an exception to this business, which will offer it an unfair competitive advantage over other business owners in the city.


(3)Self infliction: Most cities want to be sure that the hardship was not self inflicted by the business owner in order to gain an unfair advantage.



While it is necessary in a presentation to the board to hit these targets a different agenda must be in the mind of the presenter.


(1)State the hardship in completely scientific terms. In this way any objections to the hardship are usually easily set aside as it is unusual for an appeal to be made in such a way. Most conscientious board members will visit a site before a hearing to get a feel for the request. Giving too much information on the application for the variance will give board members time to defend the position of the code. By stating the hardship so solidly from a scientific position with facts and research to support your appeal with this little notice will leave the board with not enough information to resist the reality of your hardship. Most members will yield to the facts.


(2)Quantify the hardship. While many boards will debate any effort to quantify the dollar impact to the business affected, it is a necessary step in order to place importance on the request. An expert in the sign industry may be needed to determine the impact to your revenue. While placing a dollar amount on the hardship it may also serve well to quantify the impact to employment, payroll taxes, and sales tax revenues to the city.


(3)Utilize professional presentation pieces that make your point in a credible way. Seeing is believing.


(4)Be prepared to take questions and give answers that support you position. Be definite.


(5)Study the board. Hire a local attorney, for an hour that regularly appears before the board to gain any insights the attorney can give you about the board’s process and personality.


(6)No amount of preparation can guarantee the outcome so ask for more than you want and give the board strategic items that they can deny you in order to feel the power while granting the request you really need!



While this process is not easy, the reward for endurance can be great. Remember all the obstacles you have overcome in your career. Now put this process in perspective by asking “Is it worth the effort to get potentially another 15% or more in revenue?” You bet it is!













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