Limited Digital Signs Get Initial OK in Ann Arbor

Changes to the city of Ann Arbor’s sign ordinance have been given initial approval by the city council. If the changes are ratified at a second and final vote, certain kinds of digital signs with specific limitations would be allowed in the city.

Billboards on Liberty Steet at First, near the edge of downtown Ann Arbor, looking east.

Billboards on West Liberty Street at First, near the edge of downtown Ann Arbor, looking east. (Photo illustration by The Chronicle.)

But under the ordinance revisions, new billboards – signs with an area greater than 200 square feet – could not be constructed. And existing signs of that size could not have electronic features added to allow for changeable text or images. Voting against the revisions were Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) and Sally Petersen (Ward 2).

The existing sign ordinance does not allow for any changeable text, except for “noncommercial information which requires periodic change” – like time and temperature. So the proposed changes to the ordinance would allow for changeable portions of a sign, subject to the limitation that the changeable portion of the sign not be more than half the area of any sign and no more than 30 square feet per sign and 15 square feet per sign face. Additional limitations would prevent flashing and scrolling – by not allowing changes to content more often than 15 minutes.

The proposed ordinance changes would place a maximum brightness of any illuminated sign, including those that are digital/electronic: 5,000 nits during the day and 100 nits at night, and in no case greater than 0.1 foot-candles above the already existing amount of light at a residential property line. One nit is defined as one candela per square meter. And a candela is about the amount of light produced by a common tallow candle.

By way of comparison, an iPhone 5 display is reported to have a brightness of about 500 nits.

The initial approval of the ordinance changes came at the council’s March 18, 2013 meeting. [.pdf of proposed outdoor advertising ordinance]

The ordinance revisions come in the context of a moratorium on digital billboards that’s currently in place throughout the city, but is scheduled to expire on April 11, 2013. The city extended the moratorium for 180 days at its Oct. 1, 2012 meeting after it was first enacted for 180 days at the council’s April 17, 2012 meeting.

Falling under the moratorium are “billboards commonly referred to as ‘electronic message centers,’ ‘electronic message boards,’ ‘changeable electronic variable message signs,’ or any billboard containing LEDs, LCDs, plasma displays, or any similar technology to project an illuminated image that can be caused to move or change, or to appear to move or change, by a method other than physically removing and replacing the sign or its components, including by digital or electronic input.”

The moratorium resolution passed by the city council acknowledges that such signs are prohibited by the city’s current sign ordinance. From that ordinance, the list of prohibited signs include those that “… incorporate in any manner or are illuminated by any flashing or moving lights other than for conveyance of noncommercial information which requires periodic change.”

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]