Sign regulations: what it looks like if your town generally lacks good ones.

“Signage” has long been the most prominently used keyword here at this blog.  Within its respective jurisdiction, a municipal planning community fixates more than the average person—more even than me—on signs: their placement, size, color, luminosity, content, what can exist.  The American Planning Association (APA) routinely devotes webinars like this on the subject, and, at times, it will even provide expansive publications that download the diligently collected, latest best practices in sign regulations.  (Not surprisingly, advocates in various visual and graphics communications industries have developed their own meetings-of-the-minds to both operate more strategically within the ever-shifting regulatory environment, or to lobby against excessive regulation.)  “Signs” routinely occupy an oversized portion of municipal zoning code.  It might seem like a fixation, and for those who don’t see signs for anything beyond their intended informational goal (i.e., most people), so much legalese on this topic seems like much ado about nothing.  But to those people, I can only steer them to a place that offers little in the way of sign regulations: namely, the Borough of Wilson, Pennsylvania.

It is entirely unfair to use an unaesthetic, confusing-looking intersection as a synecdochic proxy for Wilson.  Yes, this ugly junction is a part of Wilson. But it doesn’t embody or even loosely characterize Wilson.  Wilson is not this bad; in fact, it’s not bad at all.  But this intersection captures how I suspect most people enter the small municipality, given that it’s the first intersection motorists encounter after leaving eastbound US 22, a limited access freeway that glances the outskirts of Wilson municipal limits before continuing to the larger city of Easton.  In the photo above, I’m looking specifically at where US 22 exit ramps spill cars onto South 25th Street, Wilsons’s western boundary.  So this really is the Wilson point-of-entry, for what it’s worth.

With a population of just over 8,000 people, Wilson is hardly a postage stamp hamlet.  But it’s not well known outside of the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania, a two-county agglomeration of municipalities I have featured multiple times on this blog (I used to live there) and, with the city of Allentown at its core, represents the third largest metro in the Keystone State.  The other two major cities are Bethlehem and Easton, the latter of which directly abuts Wilson.  In fact, in almost all respects, Wilson is an extension of Easton in all but name; it doesn’t really look any different and uses the same numbering for north-south streets as the colonial city famous for being one of only three places to receive an official reading of the Declaration of Independence.  (Outside of Easton, the other two were Trenton and, of course, Philadelphia.)  Easton’s north-south streets start from 2nd Street, not far from where the Lehigh River flows into the bigger Delaware River.  They continue westward until 15th, after which the incorporation changes to Wilson.  Beyond that, the transition is seamless.

Easton hosts a vibrant if flood-prone downtown with a center circle/square I have covered in the past.  Wilson does not have a downtown of its own—its residents can easily drive or even simply walk to Easton—those it does have a few little corner commercial nodes in keeping with a pre-1950s development pattern.  Incorporated in 1920 as part of what initially was a township, Wilson was already heavily settled and in part asserted its independence as a discrete municipality to help preclude Easton from annexing the land.  Within its first ten years, Easton grew from 5,200 to 8,200—a population figure it has largely retained ever since, growing or shrinking slightly with each decennial census, but mostly indicating stability.  It consists primarily of attached or semidetached housing from before 1950; having achieved almost complete build-out before the age of suburbia, the only portions of Wilson that are car centered are some of the commercial developments on South 25th Street, its western edge.  The entire municipality is 1.15 square miles, so it didn’t take much to achieve buildout.  And yes, by American standards (albeit fairly typical of Pennsylvania) Wilson is dense.

Few signifiers exist to tell the average passerby when he or she is in Easton versus Wilson.  One feature remains, however, that significantly distinguishes Wilson from Easton, or some of its other neighboring municipalities, and that is Wilson’s culture of sign regulation.

Confusing street/business signage shows a lack of sign regulation (Wilson PA)

Wilson doesn’t completely lack sign regulations.  But its sign regulations clearly overlook certain elements that most metropolitan dwellers have come to expect, simply because one doesn’t see this sort of thing elsewhere.  The example above is hardly egregious, but it shows both a conventional Wilson street sign and a directional sign for a nearby church.  Churches enjoy considerable leniency amidst municipal sign regulations; because RLUIPA protects the right of churches to locate in all zoning districts, the institutions themselves are permitted to feature their own directional signage to guide visitors, and the signs can go just about anywhere.  (For example, the Episcopal Church consciously uses its own denominational signs everywhere a bricks-and-mortar location is nearby.)  The image above reveals an almost identical symbology between the street naming sign and the church directional sign, potentially confusing the motorist unfamiliar with navigating Wilson.  It’s hardly a grave offense, but it would be easy to avoid with a light degree of regulation.

The white-text-on-blue-shield is a popular color scheme for informational signage, yet in Wilson it runs the risk of abuse.

Here’s a used car dealership along S. 25th Street in the southernmost reaches of Wilson, off the side of the road at a point where it becomes narrow and sinuous.  I know nothing about the business beyond that it operated just fine throughout the time I lived there and continues today.  It does, however, feature one noticeable quirk:

It uses the same informational signage as the church did elsewhere in Wilson.  I am hardly going to begrudge Living Stone Auto for using informational signage to help promote its private, for-profit operations, especially since the little blue sign is on its own property.  (I also wasn’t going to linger after spotting the inquisitive Rottweiler mix at the far left of the above photo.)  The bright blue to this sign is eye-catching and clearly helps draw attention when vehicles are making quick, blind turns.  Living Stone Auto is doing nothing wrong.  It is merely exploiting a loophole in sign regulation that Wilson’s legislature has provided.  The sign looks very official, and I’m sure it achieves its desired purpose for this particular business.  

Why shouldn’t other businesses take a cue from Living Stone Auto?  The truly egregious example of Wilson’s weak sign regulation is back at the original intersection, where cars exiting from US 22 enter both Easton and the adjacent municipality of Palmer Township.  Here’s another view:

I chose this view because it still shows the array of info motorists must confront at a junction that is unconventional even if it had good sign regulation.  But let’s focus on the problem.  Can’t see it?  Try this:

Wilson PA: perfect example of the aftermath of weak sign regulation

There it is: the clear example of why those APA webinars will continue to take place on a regular basis.

Wilson has basically allowed any and all private businesses in the immediate area to place “informational” signs director drivers on the optimal path to get to their establishments.  None of these are civic institutions or government buildings.  They include a tattoo parlor, a pizzeria, a barber shop, a bagel bakery, a boating supply store, a hotel, and another indicator for Living Stone Auto!  It’s basically wild west.  And, for motorists who veer northward on South 25th Street, another cluster of directional signs soon emerges, some of them advertising the exact same businesses as the one before.

Wilson PA: an absence of sign regulation

Wilson does, in fact, feature a particular article within its municipal code that exclusively regulates signs.  Among the chief topics within the borough’s sign ordinance are the following: purpose and administration of sign regulations, a definition of legal non-conforming signs, the removal and/or disposition of signs, what kind of signs are prohibited, signs that do not require a permit, construction and location standards of signs, general design requirements for signs, installation and maintenance, definition of special signs, and then additional specifications depending on the zoning classification within which the sign stands.  Without a basis of comparison, the Wilson sign ordinance seems robust enough.  But it clearly lacks provisions for the directional guides that would support private businesses; I have never seen another borough with such a fulsome agglomeration of little blue signs.  The ordinance seems to fixate more on defending a wide variety of illegal signs rather than the consequences of adopting an anything-goes approach as it relates to private business; as a result, private industry clearly blurs the line between “information” and “advertising”.

Wilson PA: perfect example of the aftermath of weak sign regulation

I’m sure other places like Wilson exist, and they’re probably mostly small municipalities.  A big city could never get away with allowing this; the assault on the eyes would immediately overwhelm and confuse enough motorists to raise an outcry.  But, even for those of us who are skeptical toward the sort of bureaucratic maneuverings most municipal planning and permitting offices impose on the average citizen, all it takes are the Wilsons to prove the consequences when sign regulations are too light.  Not only are these informational signs too similar to the conventional street signs that the borough uses at every intersection, but they beg the question if businesses opt for these as a workaround against onerous regulations on more conventional outdoor advertising: i.e. billboards.  Until a suitable regulatory environment exists, businesses will act of their own accord.  And Wilson sends a message to all the other neighboring communities: here’s a perfect example of what you don’t want.

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7 thoughts on “Sign regulations: what it looks like if your town generally lacks good ones.

  1. Chris B

    The last photo leads me off on a semi-tangent.

    The “Green Detour” sign is a standard form and style that I’ve seen in the Pittsburgh metro (and probably other PA metros as well). From your planning experience there, can you offer more explanation?

    I’ve always assumed it’s some pre-interstate local beltway system, or some snow/emergency route. But as a former PA resident myself (got my first driver’s license there) I do not recall any “official explanation” (and your post triggered me).

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      That question–and those signs–have always vexed me. I never see them anywhere but Pennsylvania, but I haven’t discounted the possibility that might appear in other states, but I never noticed them because of the disproportionate amount of time I’ve spent in PA. And if Pittsburgh has them–and the Lehigh Valley area definitely does–it’s safe to assume they’re distributed throughout the Keystone State.

      So I did a little digging.

      THere’s no reference to them in the PA Drivers Manual. So the Commonwealth doesn’t deem them important enough that new motorists need to learn about them.

      The best I can find is that a local media outlet raised the question a few years ago: https://www.fox43.com/article/life/ask-evan/ask-evan-why-are-there-colored-detour-signs-located-near-interstates/521-d69e78ca-8d53-4696-a53e-098559fd64d1

      The idea apparently is that they serve as an a priori solution if an incident forces the closure of a highway, providing a baked-in detour/work around. And the colors signify directions: “Green means East. Orange means West. Blue indicates North, and red means South.”

      What a goofy solution. Given that there’s no universal coloring scheme that equates them to cardinal directions, this requires people to remember the four indicators above. But how many people do this, either inside or outside of Pennsylvania. The DOT apparently initiated the scheme in the 1990s, during a time when simultaneous reconstruction projects put a lot of major highway segments out of use. But PADOT never stuck with the scheme even after installing the signs, so the sign remain, while signifying next to nothing.

      Yet another reason not to take lightly the installation of new navigational signage. Confused motorists are almost certainly more accident prone.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Thanks for playing Answer man!

        And here I thought they were just for illiterates (because, colors and arrows). But no…the whole SYSTEM was developed by ignoramuses!

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Much like “slum clearance”, I’m sure it seemed like a great idea at the time. If it were part of the PA Drivers Ed, it ***might*** have a chance of catching on….except that American drivers license maintenance standards are so lax that it wouldn’t capture more than a small percentage of drivers each year. I’d wager that most Americans only get a driving and road literacy test once or twice in their lifetimes.

          Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      They need a smart-minded person to clean the place up! (bonus if that person finds the name “Wilson” particularly relatable)

      Reply

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