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Medicine Hat Sign Regulations

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Medicine Hat Sign Regulations

Municipal Affairs - Municipal Policy

Issue

The Medicine Hat & District Chamber of Commerce has consulted with Members of the Chamber of Commerce, other municipalities and the provincial government regarding the process, permitting and regulations required to gain approval for signage within the Municipal Land Use Bylaw. The research conducted has led the Chamber to identify three primary concerns within the regulations: 

  1. Regulations are too restrictive and excessive 
  2. Lengthy processing times and delays with the approval process 
  3. Applications and re-applications can become quite costly 

Executive Summary

The establishment of a fair, equitable and consistently applied system of standards, permissions and procedures is a necessary component of the development of municipal bylaws. As with most bylaws, a bylaw which monitors signage within the City of Medicine Hat has to be developed and adopted with consideration of the community it serves in mind. Currently the business community views sign regulations as excessive and inconsistent, and permit processing times lengthy and costly. The Medicine Hat & District Chamber of Commerce recommends the City of Medicine Hat take into consideration recommendations from the business community as it pertains to sign regulations, interpretation of the bylaw and consistency when working with municipal staff to ensure a positive business community is maintained ,and not hindered within the City of Medicine Hat.

Background

The current City of Medicine Hat land use bylaw (LUB), including ‘Schedule C –Sign Regulations’, was adopted on  August 25,1998. In August 2011, a 2009 City Council decision to approve the first charter for preparation of a new LUB was reviewed and a consultant was hired, which culminated into the first draft of an updated land use bylaw being sent to community stakeholders for review and comments in May 2012. 

Preparation of a land use bylaw is a requirement of the Municipal Government Act (MGA); however, sign regulations are not a mandatory component to be included under this bylaw. Under section 640 subsection 4 in the MGA it specifies that a land use bylaw may provide for one or more of the items listed therein and does not make sign regulations a compulsory component. As a city grows and changes it may be necessary to update sign regulations more often than within the confines of a complete review of the land use bylaw. With this in mind and taking into consideration that signs are not a mandatory component of the Land Use Bylaw, sign regulations may be better applied and updated as a separate municipal bylaw. 

In Medicine Hat, although legally in effect since 1998, Schedule C of the Land Use Bylaw was not enforced municipally for more than a decade allowing businesses to put up signage without adherence to the regulations listed within the Land Use Bylaw. In July of 2011, municipal employees began enforcing the 1998 Land Use Bylaw without notice given to any businesses or stakeholders to advise them of this change in process, unfortunately causing confusion and concern within the business community. While a business owner would have easily erected a sign in the past they were now receiving additional fees for violation of the current bylaw in addition to having to pay for multiple sign permits that they were previously not required to obtain. The increased costs coupled with a perceived lack of collaboration by the City of Medicine Hat caused business frustration and dissatisfaction. 

Since 1998 the requirement for a development permit for signage had not been enforced, however as sign companies and businesses learned of the new enforcement of Schedule C, many more sign permits were being brought to the city for approval. This influx of permitting brought to the surface numerous cases of inconsistencies among municipal staff coupled with unreasonable wait times to obtain a development permit. Many businesses had to return to City Hall numerous times only to receive inconsistent answers to their questions by municipal employees due to the interpretation of the bylaw. One new business to Medicine Hat stated “I have been involved in over 150 [franchise] projects across the country… I can have a store open in approximately seven weeks in most municipalities. In Medicine Hat, with a considerable amount of assistance and time from our landlord and our architect it took us 13 weeks (sign permit process six weeks, total permit process almost three months). ”A number of consultations with Alberta municipalities found that two to three weeks is sufficient time to approve complete sign permit applications.

Another local company had their original sign permit denied, therefore forced to put up a smaller, less desirable sign. Subsequently, city staff reversed their decision and approved the original application a few weeks later. The local company could not afford to have another sign constructed and erected and are currently operating with the smaller sign due to costs. In order to avoid this type of situation, a more specific and detailed appeal process should be added to the land use bylaw and, should the sign regulations be approved as a separate bylaw, be added to the sign bylaw as well.  

Along with enforcement of the approval, erection, construction, placement and use of signs, design and copy components were also becoming subject to approval by the City of Medicine Hat. One municipal employee stated to a business that their "shade of green’ would not be approved, and made comment that a national franchise that previously painted their building "would never happen again in Medicine Hat’. As design and aesthetics can be interpreted differently by each individual, this type of approval may increase the occurrences of inconsistencies among municipal staff and could be viewed by the business community as overregulation. Additionally, it is difficult to disallow company branding, trademarks and other aesthetics that coincide with a companies overall brand identity. Other municipalities consulted stated they do not require approval for ‘design or aesthetic components’ as this could infringe upon freedom of expression and many businesses are subject to corporate and/or business guidelines. Currently, in the City of Medicine Hat, each sign goes through a two week public appeal process, which gives citizens the opportunity to raise concerns over specific signs and their location. This process should provide sufficient notice and opportunity for the general consensus of our community to respond and/or object.

As a result of the considerable amount of questions and comments that surfaced regarding specific sign regulations and enforcement, a stakeholder ‘taskforce’ was developed to consult with city staff in relation to new sign regulations as included in the first draft of the updated land use bylaw. The Chamber applauds this effort as both private sector and public consultation will provide the opportunity for businesses to voice their concerns and offer amendments to ensure a final draft of the sign regulations is conducive to a fair and equitable system that promotes a healthy business environment.

Draft one of the land use bylaw includes statement ‘10.1 (f): that signs do not unduly interfere with or diminish the amenities of the district in which they are located. ’As Medicine Hat is a diverse community that contains a wide variety of commercial, retail and residential districts a consideration should be made to include specific sign regulations relative to each district, such as used in sign regulations by the City of Lethbridge and the City of Red Deer. Such an inclusion would eliminate an overregulation of signage in the city as a whole, while providing the opportunity for less restrictive regulations in specific areas due to the nature of those land use districts.

Analysis

To ensure the establishment of a fair, equitable, and consistently applied system of standards, permissions, and procedures in regards to signage in Medicine Hat and to ensure past misunderstandings are not repeated, amendments should be made to the draft land use bylaw to ensure the bylaw is specific, concise, and business friendly, while eliminating the opportunity for broad interpretation and inconsistent implementation.

Recommendations

The Medicine Hat and District Chamber of Commerce recommends the City of Medicine Hat:

  1. Remove Schedule C ‘Sign Regulations’ from the Land Use Bylaw and approve as a separate municipal bylaw. 
  2. Inform industry, key stakeholders and the business community of any changes or amendments to regulations and enforcement as it pertains to current or future sign regulations in a timely and effective manner that allows for consultation, review and subsequent collaboration, compliance and adherence to the bylaw. 
  3. Ensure all municipal staff are well equipped with the knowledge, customer service training and documentation needed to properly inform businesses, interpret and implement bylaws and process permits in a concise and consistent manner.
  4. Once complete applications are received, implement a maximum three week permitting process for development permits for signage. 
  5. Include a comprehensive appeal process section to both the land use bylaw, and the sign regulations should they be approved separately, such as Part 6 – Appealing Decisions of the City of Lethbridge Land Use Bylaw 5700. 
  6. Remove any vocabulary that alludes to municipal staff approving signage based on ‘desirable appearance’ or ‘aesthetics’, as this should be left to the public appeal process currently in place for all sign permit approvals. 
  7. Use municipal land use districts in making specific recommendations regarding the type, size and usage of signs permissible in each district. 
  8. Ensure that change of sign copy for an existing sign does not require a development permit, or design approval if the sign area occupies the same general area of copy originally created and/or provided for an awning, canopy, window, fascia, wall, roof, or free-standing sign. The canopy/awning structure (overall display area) or permanent sign cabinet on a fascia or free-standing sign can not be expanded or increased in area as that change (increase in area) would constitute a new sign. 
  9. Adopt the specific recommendations outlined in Schedule A 


Date Approved: June 20, 2012
Date Completed: 2013

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