The Complex World of Signs

The world of signs is surprisingly complex. Basically, there are two types of signs – on-premises and off-premises – and they have different functions. Seattle DCI regulates signs per the land use and building codes, and the electrical and energy codes if the signs are illuminated. If your sign overhangs any part of a public place, such as a sidewalk, you need an annual public space permit from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) before you apply for a Seattle DCI sign permit. If your sign is located in one of the City’s special review districts, you also need preservation district board (Department of Neighborhoods) approval before Seattle DCI can issue your sign permit. All of these complexities assure safe, effective, and neighborhood-friendly sign installations.

The simplest type of sign is the off-premises sign, commonly known as a billboard. A billboard can advertise or display any kind of message. “Go Hawks,” for example, could be advertising the Seahawks football team and would be paid for by the team owners; or the “Go Hawks” message might simply be non-commercial speech paid for by a supportive group of fans. Either way, the message is not related to the property upon which the sign is located. The City has a registration program for the restricted number of off-premises signs allowed within the City limits. Each sign has a unique registration number posted on the sign structure and displays the name of the sign owner. These off-premises signs are restricted as to location, size, and dispersion by the zoning regulations of the Land Use Code.  Building Code regulations ensure the structure supporting the sign is built to withstand various forces, such as wind. A newly released Director’s Rule 14-2015  explains the process for requesting relocation of a registered off-premises sign or changing the existing billboard use to a new on-premises sign use.

The second type of sign is the on-premises sign. This type of sign serves a business located on the property upon which the sign is located. The sign informs the public about the products or services provided or produced on site. Seattle DCI reviews each sign permit application for compliance with all of the various special reviews and codes. For example, Joe’s Pizza Parlor signs must be placed on the property where Joe’s pizza is made or served. If Joe wants a lighted sign that hangs over the sidewalk at his front door, that overhanging sign must have an annual public space permit from SDOT and a Seattle DCI sign permit. The Seattle DCI sign permit includes inspection of the electrical connection to the building and the required timeclock.  If Joe’s Pizza Parlor is located in a special review district, such as Pike Place Market, Joe must meet design guidelines and get approval from DON’s preservation district board. If Joe serves alcohol in his pizza parlor, Joe may want signs displaying the brands he serves; any liquor sign must to comply with State liquor control regulations, City requirements, and must be included in the sign permit application materials. The total square footage of all types of signs for each business is determined by the street frontage and zoning at the business site. During your sign installation, you or your installer must request and pass each required inspection or your permit will expire.

Yes, it is that complicated! It is important that new business owners take time to learn about the various regulations or hire a professional experienced with Seattle laws. Zoning is complicated because of the various zoning requirements and overlays which impact the size and location of your signs. Remember, some areas are zoned as historical or special review districts such as Pioneer Square or Pike/Pine and require extra approvals. Other areas may be impacted by the transparency requirements in a pedestrian overlay or may need an annual SDOT permit. All of these things impact the timeline for design, approval and installation of your sign.

Think about your signs early. If your location requires various department reviews, it could take a while. You want your signs installed before your grand opening to build anticipation and excitement within the neighborhood!

We are here to help you navigate this process. Contact us!

Steve Sampson
(206) 684-8419
steve.sampson@Seattle.gov