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Photo Courtesy of Sullaway Engineering
Photo Courtesy of Sullaway Engineering

Permits & Variances

Need help with permits or variances?

ISA's sign code experts are available to guide you through challenges at the federal, state and local levels.

Kenny Peskin
Director of Industry Programs

How to Obtain a Permit

In most communities, installing a new sign requires the sign, graphics and visual communications company to seek a permit. Some communities require this step for temporary signs and banners, too. The permitting process ensures that the sign is legal in the community and location where it will be installed.

The permit application may receive two rounds of approvals:

  • An administrative approval, based on analytical criteria, such as whether it meets the standards of the sign code.
  • A design approval considers aesthetics, such as how the sign relates to the proposed site.

The design approval process is considered much more discretionary, and may cause uncertainty about what signs will be approved. It also lengthens the time involved in receiving the permit. Because of its lack of objective criteria, a design approval is more likely to run into challenges based on violation of Constitutional Rights.

If your sign design is not compliant with local codes, it is possible to receive a variance, a legal exception from the code.


It is not impossible to receive a variance to your local codes. However, it requires careful planning and a reasoned argument.

  • To receive a variance, it’s likely that you’ll need a justifiable reason. That could include:
  • The sign would not be visible to motorists because of existing buildings, trees, or other obstructions.
  • Signage would not be seen by motorists in a time to safely react and stop at the business.
  • Existing signs reduce the visibility of a sign on your property.
  • A sign built to code would block motorists’ view of the road or otherwise be unsafe.
  • Environmental concerns, such as alteration of topography, filling of wetlands, obstruction of natural drainage would be impacted by the sign.
  • The variance could be offset by other enhancements, including setting the building further back, or increasing landscaping. The overall look would be better than if built to code.
  • A larger sign would be more appropriate because of the scale of the building.

Sign Visibility

This video introduces and explains about the five factors of sign visibility that can impact the effectiveness of an individual sign.

Issues in the Permitting Process

Be prepared to cite a reason and be sure to include how your sign will enhance the surrounding community as well. Detail how the property improvements can help revitalize the area, or increase incomes or property value, which leads to increased tax revenues. Enhanced readability will contribute to road safety.

If you have difficulties getting signs approved, consider making planners and local officials aware of the economic benefits of signs and how other communities have successfully developed reasonable sign codes.

ISA's sign code experts are available to guide you through challenges at the federal, state and local levels. Contact for guidance.