City of Tucson Sign Code: “Just Fix It — Please!”

City of Tucson Sign Code: “Just Fix It — Please!”

If your business has ever had to have a new sign made or had to repair or replace an existing sign, odds are good that you have experienced what is perhaps the crown jewel of regulatory nightmares in Tucson: the sign code.

Signs are one of the most important tools in a business’s tool kit.  Customers shop where they find navigation easy.  Signs say a lot about the brand image of a company.  Practically every business and every building in Tucson has some kind of sign.  Simply put – signs matter, and getting one shouldn’t be a complicated, marathon process.

The problem is that in the City of Tucson, getting a sign permit is often as tangled as sorting out a trash bag filled with coat hangers.  At the root of the problem is the current City of Tucson sign code, a jumble of archaic regulations that are often contradictory and open to liberal amounts of interpretation.  And if dealing with City staff and an outdated sign code weren’t enough, there’s the Citizens Sign Code Committee (CSCC), a panel of 11 people who have been meeting regularly for more than 30 years and have nothing but obfuscation to claim as their accomplishment over that period of time.  The CSCC is composed of citizens who generally have a dim view of the value of signs and a few sign company executives who are just trying to simplify the sign permitting process.  The function of the CSCC is purely advisory, but one must question why it is needed at all.  Don’t we already have a City department responsible for writing and enforcing the sign code? What does the CSCC do that’s important enough to meet so regularly?

The CSCC has been labeled the City’s “most expensive citizen committee” in staff time, meetings and related expenses according to one City Council member’s chief aide.  That’s a big price tag for a committee that has virtually nothing to show for its efforts over 10 years.

City staff, led by Zoning Examiner Jim Mazzocco, are currently in the process of revising the City’s sign code so that it complies with a recent landmark court case called Reed vs. Gilbert, a 2015 court case for sign regulation.  The decision clarified when municipalities may impose content-based restrictions on signage.  Once the City rewrites its sign code it must go to the City Council for approval.

Sign company executives want three basic outcomes from this review and the rewriting of the City’s sign code: consistency, predictability and reliability.  As one sign company executive recently put it, “Right now what we have is permitting by variance.”  Put another way, the current sign code is so confusing and open to interpretation that far too many sign permit requests end up as debates and arguments that are expensive, time-consuming and job-killing.  Another sign company executive puts it this way, “What we hope for from the revised code are:

  1. Consistent interpretations, (which this revision should fix most if not all)
  2. More design flexibility
  3. The regulations in an easier-to-follow format.”

Those expectations sound pretty reasonable to me.  I hope they sound reasonable to the people who will be drafting the code’s language.

Promoting sensible revision of the sign code resulting in consistent application of its rules is just one initiative of the Tucson Metro Chamber’s Project Prosperity Task Force.  The mission of the task force is to work with City of Tucson officials to make our City as welcoming to job creators as possible.

Establishing a new sign code should be a simple process where all voices are heard and City staff acts based on the requirements of Reed vs. Gilbert.  So please, “just do it”, rewrite a fair code that takes care of City aesthetics and makes the process of acquiring a sign permit simple, reliable and consistent.  Recognize that signs are important to the prosperity of business and that sales taxes from the customers who patronize those businesses pay the City’s bills.  Once done, dissolve the Citizens Sign Code Committee and put the money spent on treading water to work where it will do some good.


Michael V. Varney
President & CEO