The Chamber’s Position on City’s New Signs By-Law

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SSM Chamber 125 Years

Overview

The Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce is committed to being the voice for business in the community. As part of our advocacy strategy, the Chamber develops formal positions on various matters impacting the business community from a Municipal, Provincial and Federal perspective.

This paper is intended to communicate the Chamber’s position on the New Comprehensive Signs By-Law – Discussion Paper to the City of Sault Ste. Marie. It is our view that the development of a sign by-law in Sault Ste. Marie will involve strategic regulations and implementation so as to avoid unnecessary or unintended infringement on the business community.

It is important that the Chamber of Commerce and the City work together in creating a by-law that successfully regulates the use of signs but does not  impact, any more than is reasonable, the rights and ability of our membership to do business. As one of the largest stakeholder groups in the community, we have a duty to protect our membership and ensure that Sault Ste. Marie continues on the path to becoming one of the best places in Canada to do business.

The goal of achieving an aesthetically pleasing and safe streetscape is important to the business community.  The right to be able to express one’s self freely, even within the context of an advertising campaign, is a component of our fundamental rights guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  It is the Chamber’s position that any new sign by-law must balance these two competing interests.

By strategically developing modern by-laws and updating past by-laws Sault Ste. Marie will be able to adjust to the pressures of the 21st century. Through this updating process, the City must ensure that new by-laws promote economic growth and innovation.  Further, the City must ensure that the steps taken to achieve legislative goals do not unduly inhibit basic rights of community stakeholders.  Proposals, in any area of legislation, that seek to impose outright prohibitions on any action are rarely ones that are balanced or appropriate.

Introduction

We understand the newly proposed sign by-law to be a step towards updating and modernizing the original by-law created in the 1970’s, and amended from time to time thereafter. Currently, there are two by-laws governing the use of signs: 2005-16 and 2012-206. The existing by-laws essentially regulate the use of signs with respect to size, position, lighting, etc. as well as the different types of regulated signs (i.e. billboards, mobile signs, canopy signs, wall sign, etc.).  Obviously, digital signs are not regulated within by-law 2005-16, which is why by-law 2012-206 was created in 2012.

The City’s March 2015 discussion paper on the new sign by-law outlines some of the weaknesses associated with the existing by-laws. The majority of the weaknesses, from what we understand, stem from the lack of definition, organization and distinction between sign types.  There are gaps in the current by-laws. Without clear definitions and distinguishable differences in the type of signs, the by-law is open to wide and uncertain interpretation which, no doubt, creates confusion and difficulty with respect to enforcement.

The Chamber can support the creation of a new sign by-law that will clearly define what is permitted and what is not. The successful creation of a well-defined by-law will ensure fair and equal treatment for all stakeholders in the community.

The Chamber will support a new sign by-law that is reasonable and fair to the business community and that clearly defines what is permitted and what is not. The Chamber is concerned with the regulation of third party advertising via all forms of signage (i.e., advertising content for services that are not offered on the same site as the sign). The Chamber is also opposed to any terms that would outlaw any particular medium, such as mobile signs.  The Chamber is not opposed to a by-law that would seek to properly and fairly regulate the use of all mediums, including mobile signs.

The Chamber’s Position

The Chamber’s position on the preliminary recommendations in the City’s New Comprehensive Signs By-Law – Discussion Paper is as follows:

1.      Permanent Signs:

The new by-law would set acceptable regulations for permanent signage in Sault Ste. Marie. Regulating the size, position and number of signs on each property is important to maintaining aesthetics of properties in the city while also managing safety concerns of those using roadways and other forms of transportation.

2.       Temporary Signs:

The proposed regulations for temporary signs are not acceptable to the Chamber.  We will not support time restrictions being put on the use of mobile signs in the community. Businesses and not-for-profit organizations use mobile signs for advertising events and marketing their business. While regulating the position of mobile signs and their size may be an acceptable component of the by-law, regulating the duration a sign can be displayed and the amount of permits available per business in a given year is unreasonable and unnecessary. The limit put on permits will have a detrimental effect on sign businesses as well as businesses that rely on them as a means of advertising. We believe that instead of regulating permits allowed per business, the City should instead consider and adopt a maximum number of permits per quarter across the entire city.

Issuing a ban on third party advertising via mobile sign or any other sign type, is a violation of the rights we all enjoy under Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  This proposal is also an indirect effort to eliminate portable/mobile signs in the community of Sault Ste. Marie. Those who drafted and consulted on the By-law had to have known that much of the mobile sign business is based on third-party advertising. They also had to have known that businesses and organizations that use third party mobile signs, often do so in order to overcome issues related to the location of their business. These businesses are typically located in areas where exposure is minimal and not appropriate to provide the exposure their business requires to maximize the likelihood of success.

3.       Changeable Copy Signs:

Regulations concerning the use of changeable copy signs both non-electric and electric are the main source of concern for the Chamber. Regulating the size of these signs and other aspects connected to public safety is an understandable procedure; however, regulating the use of signs for third party advertising creates a dangerous barrier to the flow of commerce in the city. Creating a by-law that restricts the use of digital signs for the purpose of third party advertising will have a negative effect on the innovative nature of new forms of advertising in Sault Ste. Marie.

Enforcing a by-law that will ban the use of any kind of signage for the purpose of advertising is a direct infringement on an individual’s freedom of expression.

Any kind of sign that follows by-law regulations with respect to size and placement should not be restricted in what content is advertised. Many of those impacted by the regulation of third party advertising will be not-for-profit groups and charity groups relying on signs in the community to promote events and fundraising activities. One of the arguments against using signs for the purpose of third party advertising identifies them as distracting. The reality is that, whether a sign is used to advertise first party or third party information, the distraction level remains the same. The banning of third party advertising will not reduce the risk posed by distracting signs.  Furthermore, we have been unable to find convincing evidence to support the proposition that the quantity or frequency of signage may be a distraction.  As such regulations designed to reduce distraction by signage by reducing the number of signs and the duration of installations, is somewhat dubious.

4.       Third Party Advertising

The proposed regulations place a ban on third party advertising. Such regulation not only stymies the sign advertisement business but is also, in our view is a violation of the constitutional right of freedom of expression.

This paper is not intended to outline the Chamber’s position on the legality of the proposed sign by-law; however, we strongly caution the City to be mindful of the constitutionality of an outright ban on third party sign advertising and any action that can be deemed to be a ban on the use of any particular type of signage.  The costs of a legal dispute of this nature can far exceed any value from changes to the sign by-law.

A decision to ban third party advertising on signs not only limits the ability of our business members to reach out and advertise to their clientele but will likely cause businesses in the sign industry to close their doors.

For obvious reasons we, as a Chamber, cannot support this aspect of the proposed by-law.

 

The Chamber’s Proposals

The Chamber proposes the following:

o   That the City not ban third party advertising and, instead, regulate it only as much as is necessary to achieve its stated goals. To that end, the City should consult with the Chamber and the business community to arrive at a reasonable compromise.

o   That the City should distinguish two sets of permits for mobile signs. The City cannot group mobile signs into one category.  Corporations using mobile signs as permanent fixtures should be able to apply for full year permits, subject to annual limits that would apply city-wide and not at the business to business level. Those who use mobile signs in the short term on a temporary basis should be able to apply for monthly permits, again subject to city-wide caps for all short term mobile signs. For example, a store that uses mobile signs as a means of promoting weekly specials should be able to obtain a full year permit.  A business using a temporary mobile sign to promote a onetime event should be able to apply for a monthly permit. There should be a limit connected to the number of permits allowed per year in each category, which limit should be developed in consultation with the sign business community and businesses at large.

We look forward to discussing this position paper and our proposals very soon. Please let us know when you are available to do so.

We also urge you to engage and communicate with our members to better understand their needs and wants before finalizing the by-law.

Regards,

Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce