Sign Code Updates

Reason for the Undertaking

In 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the Reed vs. Town of Gilbert case that the City of Gilbert's sign code had unconstitutionally restricted the right of free speech by allowing content-based sign regulations. In light of this ruling, the City of Puyallup is re-examining its sign regulations for conformance with free speech laws. Please read below for more information about what sign laws are and are not changing, when the code is anticipated to change, and how to provide comments. 

Proposed Code Changes

City Planning and Code Compliance staff have developed a revised sign code and home occupation code. Below is a summary of the work completed:

  1. Compliance with Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Gilbert. Staff has developed a draft version of the City’s sign code that has attempted to eliminate content-based regulations and replace them with content-neutral regulations. In many cases, the general framework of the content-based regulation (for example, permitted location, duration, and quantity) has been preserved, but in other cases regulations and sign categories have been merged, changed, or eliminated
  2. Elimination of aggregate sign area. Currently the size limitation for signs in the Central Business District (CBD), Central Business District - Core (CBD-Core) and Mixed Use (MX) zones are capped by a total or “aggregate” sign area for the parcel. This regulation is difficult to explain to applicants and similar regulation can be achieved through lowering the allowed sign areas by type. Staff has eliminated the aggregate sign size limitation from the sign code and in some cases lowered the allowed façade sign area to compensate. Staff has also had to add some missing sign size limits that were previously absent for some sign types (such as monument and projecting signs).
  3. Code clean-up. The new sign code features a streamlined code that no longer includes redundant, out-of-date, and/or self-contradictory programs and provisions. Some definitions have also been re-worked to more clearly define terms used throughout the sign code.
  4. New sign tables for zones. To further clarify sign regulations and create consistent, easy to follow rules, staff has added tables to each of the zone sections. These tables make few substantive changes to the sign regulations for the zone, but rather make it faster and easier to find the most important sign rules for each zone. The tables are in a standard format that is consistent throughout all zone sections and scattered rules for different sign types have been consolidated and repeated where appropriate in each table.
  5. Temporary Signs on private property. Changes were made to allow sandwich board signs on private property and increase their allowed height, from 3’ to 3.5’, to match the existing allowed height of political signs (now called temporary free-standing signs). Allowances for temporary off-premises signs were also removed, but they are still allowed in the ROW. 
  6. Temporary signs in the right-of-way (ROW). A new section, 20.60.067, now governs signs in the ROW. The regulations are largely existing in the current code and have been consolidated into one section that limits the size, placement, and duration of signs on City streets. These changes include:
    • Expanded messages that are allowed on temporary signs in the right-of-way from only political signs to any type of messaging, including commercial signs.
    • Eliminate the requirement for a temporary sign permit
    • Eliminate the time limit for temporary signs in the ROW
  7. Eliminated Content based sign programs. ‘Community event message signs’, ‘Fuel price information signs’, and ‘Incidental signs’ all contained regulations entirely based on the signs message and have therefore been deleted.
  8. Home Occupations (PMC 20.75). The revisions to PMC 20.75 Home Occupations proposes changes to Section 015 Performance Standards specifically the section that pertains to signs for home based businesses and Section 005 Permit Requirements. Changes would remove the requirement for a business to obtain a home occupation permit just for having a small 6 SF sign on the front of the house.  
  1. Rachael Brown

    Current Planning - Assistant Planner
    Phone: 253-770-3363

Opportunities to Comment

Tentative dates for the City to publicly review sign code amendments
  • City Council 1st Reading (official review of new code) - March 10, 2020
  • City Council final action (potential adoption of new code) - March 24, 2020
  • Submit Comments electronically below

Temporary Sign Code Amendments Infographic

Supreme Court Ruling on Sign Regulations and Free Speech

At the time of this case, the City of Gilbert's sign code prohibited the the display of outdoor signs without a permit, but exempted 23 categories of signs, including three relevant here:

  • "Ideological Signs,” defined as signs “communicating a message or ideas for noncommercial purposes” that do not fit into other Sign Code categories, may be up to 20 square feet and have no placement or time restrictions.
  • “Political Signs,” defined as signs “designed to influence the outcome of an election,” may be up to 32 square feet and may only be displayed during an election season.
  • “Temporary Directional Signs,” defined as signs directing the public to a church or other “qualifying event,” have even greater restrictions: No more than four of the signs, limited to six square feet, may be on a single property at any time, and signs may be displayed no more than 12 hours before the “qualifying event” and 1 hour after.

The petitioners, Good News Community Church, held Sunday church services at various temporary locations in and near the Town of Gilbert. In order to identify the location for the current week’s service, the Church posted temporary signs early each Saturday bearing the Church name and the time and location for the next day’s service. The Church left the signs up from Saturday until around midday Sunday, the day of the service. The Church left the signs up for longer than 1 hour after the event and was cited for exceeding the time limits prescribed for “temporary directional signs.” The Church sued, claiming that the Sign Code violated their freedom of speech. The case was appealed up to the United States Supreme Court.

The court found that the Gilbert sign regulations as written, required the regulator to read the message and administer a different set of regulations based on that message or “content”. If the regulation of signs is content based on its face, then it is subject to strict scrutiny since the sign is a form of speech and speech is protected by the First Amendment. Strict scrutiny is the degree to which a court will examine the regulation if/when challenged. Strict scrutiny is the highest level of scrutiny and is rarely, if ever, overcome. Should a content based regulation of speech be challenged in court, the municipality would need to survive strict scrutiny, which requires the government to prove that the restriction furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. The opinion the court stated, “A law that is content based on its face is subject to strict scrutiny regardless of the government’s benign motive, content-neutral justification, or lack of ‘animus toward the ideas contained’ in the regulated speech.”

In examining the government interests the Town of Gilbert claimed it was furthering with these sign regulations (aesthetic appeal and traffic safety), the court ruled that the City failed to meet its burden to prove that the sign code was narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest. The court analyzed the distinctions the sign code made based on content and concluded that aesthetic and traffic safety impacts did not justify those distinctions. The court ruled that the message of the sign did not have any logical relationship to furthering the interests of aesthetic appeal or traffic safety. Signs advertising a church meeting are not inherently less safe or less attractive than signs advertising a political candidate.