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Brewing Sign Code Controversy

According to the International Sign Association (ISA), signage is the least expensive and most effective form of advertising. Signs can account for 50 percent of a business’s customers.


“I was so surprised to get so much response from the signs, compared to other advertising I’ve done,” said one new business owner who asked to remain anonymous. “I felt like it was a real blessing.” In three short weeks, her A-frame sign placed on private property near a high-traffic corridor netted her over 25 new customers. The boon lasted until City of Flagstaff officials asked her to remove the sign, which did not comply with sign standards.

The business owner is not the only one grumbling about Flagstaff’s stringent sign code. “I was talking to someone last night at the Chamber of Commerce mixer,” said Betty Goodwin of Print Raven in Flagstaff. “When they opened their business, one city official approved their sign and then, according to a second official’s interpretation, they had to take down and redo the new sign. That’s what makes people so upset. That’s why they rewrote the sign code, to make it easier to follow. You mention signs, and everybody has stories like that about misinterpretation of the sign codes.”

Sign standards, rewritten as part of the larger rewrite of the Flagstaff Zoning Code, were rolled out for enforcement last December.

“The old sign code was really complicated and poorly written,” said Roger Eastman, City of Flagstaff zoning code administrator. “When we look back, it was too restrictive. We talked to the business community and we came up with the standards that we have today.”

But Flagstaff business owners understood that the new code would be more user-friendly and perhaps more lenient.

“It’s just as complicated,” said Phil Keesee, Northern Arizona Signs and co-chair of the Sign Focus Group, who was disappointed in the lack of participation from business owners. “We started out with a large group, maybe 20-24 people, but attendance went down to a dozen or [fewer]. Sadly, there were not many businesses represented,” said Keesee, who reported that the majority of those attending the Sign Focus Group were city staff and concerned citizens.

The rewritten sign standard allows for a 60-day use permit for temporary signs. The old code banned the use of temporary signs, although the city did not enforce the ban since the downturn of the economy.

Goodwin explained her surprise, “When it [the new standard] came out, we thought, one permit for 60-days for the whole year? They really didn’t address the issues. The use of temporary signs is so limited, why bother? Okay, so you gave us a baby carrot. We’re hungry, we want a bunch.”

“After we tell [our customers] about the sign code, we hear, ‘Doesn’t the city want me to be in business? They’re making it difficult for me to do business,’” she added. After hearing laments from customers, she and her husband, Ed Goodwin, created an online forum for comments about Flagstaff signs. The website, www.flagstaffsigns.com, reads, “At the Print Raven, we are sponsoring this site and encouraging comments on the Flagstaff Sign Code because we feel that, in its present form, the sign code is detrimental to the success of small businesses in Flagstaff.”

When asked to comment, Eastman replied, “That’s really not correct…if they compare the old code. That is fundamentally incorrect.” He further noted that he or his compliance officers have heard no negative comments. But it is possible that prudent businesspeople would not complain to compliance officers who have the ability to interpret the sign standard to harm or benefit the business.

“When we rewrote the code, we made it less restrictive, not more restrictive. The permanent sign standards are essentially the same. We loosened them up a little,” said Eastman.

“Sign placement on the building has become a burr under our saddles with this new code,” reported Keesee. “It’s out – it’s being road tested. Is it way easier? No, it’s not. We’re frustrated because it didn’t get simpler, the interpretation has tightened up and that’s more restrictive. So that’s more irritating to our clients.” Those in the sign business are usually the ones to inform sign-buyers about city sign standards and to point clients to the 74-page document.

“It’s that classic scenario of ‘Don’t shoot the messenger,’” said Keesee, who looks forward to the formal review of the sign standards.

“The first round of amendments will go to council later this year,” explained Eastman. “We’ve found minor corrections. We will propose to council that the temporary sign permit change from 60 days to something else. You can look to that number increasing – 90 days or 100 days or something like that.” (Eastman recommends that anyone who would like to submit items for review should contact him at reastman@flagstaffaz.gov or 928-213-2640.)


Other concerns voiced by businesspeople include:


  • Restrictions on where a business owner may park his/her business vehicle.
  • A business owner may not place a sign on his/her building that faces the main traffic corridor, unless the building entrance faces that same street.
  • Although the standard states that signs in the Flagstaff Central District are approved based on the use of two or three-dimensional form, the more expensive three-dimensional signs are now required for approval. The 3-D application increases the cost of the sign by up to 300 percent.
  • Off-premise signs like those afforded the businesses in the Flagstaff Auto Park District should be available for other businesses that do not have highway frontage.


“If you don’t have the money to be in the main plazas where there is signage, then how can you build your business without signs to get to those better traffic areas? We hoped that the changes would address these problems,” said Betty Goodwin.

Many believe that the current standards do not recognize the powerful impact that signage has for advertising a business. Billboards, off-site signage, LED signs called “the most effective outdoor advertising and marketing tool you can have for your business location” are not allowed within Flagstaff city limits. FBN


City of Flagstaff Sign Standards



Flagstaff Sign Code Forum



Flagstaff for a Sane Sign Code



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