Study: Cities may need to regulate yard signs as they become more common, potentially troublesome

June 22, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio - While many communities regulate the signs that businesses use, few have laws controlling signs people place in their own yards. But that may have to change, according to researchers at Ohio State University.

Two professors studied a fad in Amarillo, Texas of placing odd artistic signs in residential yards and found that they sparked conflict between those who had the signs and those who didn't have the signs and wanted them gone.

About half of the residents surveyed wanted some or all of the signs removed, although only a small minority wanted laws to regulate new signs.

"What we found is that most people just didn't like the signs at all - the content of the signs had nothing to do with it," said Jennifer Evans-Cowley, co-author of the study and assistant professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State.

"These particular signs were relatively large, and common around the city and hard for people to avoid. But as yard signs become more common around the country, more communities are going to have to decide if they want to regulate these signs, and if so, how they can legally do it."

Evans-Cowley conducted the study with Jack Nasar, professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State. They had two related papers on their study published recently in the Journal of the American Planning Association and The Geographical Review.

The researchers studied a unique situation in Amarillo in which more than 5,000 permanent yard signs have been installed in residents' yards as part of a public art project. The artist, Stanley Marsh, paid for the project and offered to install a sign in the yard of any resident who requested one.

The signs are similar in size and shape to traffic signs and are mounted on metal posts about five feet high. The signs are set in poured concrete, making them difficult to remove or steal. Most are in primary colors such as yellow and red and typically contain a phrase, portrait, cartoon or some combination.

Some signs feature images, such as the Mona Lisa or a cartoon character. Some have messages such as "That's Life" or "But Baby I Love Your Money." Some contain messages that may offend some people, such as "She Sat On More Laps than A Napkin."

Evans-Cowley, who at one time worked in the city planner's office in Amarillo, said she was interested to learn what residents thought of these signs.

The city itself had not tried to regulate their use. "The city didn't do anything when the signs first started to appear, but they probably didn't realize how widespread they would become," she said. "At some point it probably becomes too late to try to begin regulating signs such as these, so it is important for cities to try to deal with this issue proactively."

The researchers surveyed a cross-section of residents who had the signs in their yards (98 people total) and the neighbors of those with signs (235 people total).

The results showed that 35.7 percent of those surveyed called for the removal of all signs and an additional 15.4 percent wanted the removal of signs that people found offensive. In general, residents said they didn't think the signs improved the neighborhood, did not judge them as public art, disapproved of them generally, and would prefer to have them (if at all) distant from their house.

Although people who had the signs in their yards were generally more supportive, Evans-Cowley said she was surprised that even 15 percent of those with the signs in their yards said they didn't like them. Some of those may have another family member who wanted the sign, but others moved into a house in which the sign was already there and didn't want to bother with taking it out, or thought it was public art and that they couldn't remove it.

Despite the fact that many disliked the signs, only 3.4 percent advocated passing design review laws that would allow some types of signs but ban others. Some commented that such design laws might violate property or free speech rights.

But Evans-Cowley said federal law and various court cases give cities the right to restrict the types and location of yard signs, as long as they don't try to restrict their messages.

"A lot of regulations are aimed at commercial signs, but most officials haven't been concerned about yard signs," Evans-Cowley said. "But we're starting to see a lot more of these types of signs in people's yards, and it is better to try to regulate them before they become a nuisance."

She said the situation in Amarillo is unique because the signs were so common, large and permanent. But yard signs seem to becoming more common in many neighborhoods around the country, Evans-Cowley said.

For example, many people now have signs stating they have a child who is an athlete their local high school, or that they are for or against the war in Iraq, or that announces they are proud of their ethnic heritage. Most of these signs are unobtrusive and don't cause any problems. But she said the potential for problems exists, as the situation in Amarillo shows, which is why cities need to take action.

In Amarillo, many of the yard art signs look exactly like traffic signs and are installed very near the road, possibly confusing or distracting drivers, she said.

In order to avoid a situation like Amarillo, Evans-Cowley said cities can regulate where yard signs are located, the size of the signs, and what materials are used to construct them.

"Cities should examine their regulations that apply to residential areas to ensure any signs are limited to an appropriate size, style and placement," she said. "It's a topic that needs to be considered by cities around the nation."

Ohio State University

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