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Sign of the Times: Rules Don’t Apply to Corporations in Birmingham

  |   By: Dave Folk     |   Opinion

A sign arose above Birmingham last week to the chagrin of any citizen with functional eyes. Not a sign in the biblical sense, like a plague of locusts; but a sign in the literal sense — still a plague, though. Buffalo Rock hoisted up a behemoth of a sign advertising Pepsi above one of Birmingham’s tallest buildings — You may know of Pepsi as the brand that is not Coca-Cola.

Why is this news at all? Aside from being an eye-sore — also it not being a Coke sign — the erection of said advertisement achieves newsworthy status because the city refuses to enforce the handful of codes that Pepsi’s ballyhooing violates.

Chuck Faush, Mayor Bell’s chief of staff, said the city was blindsided by this and will need to review its regulations. But, I didn’t have trouble reviewing the city’s regulations and finding exactly what codes this sign violates.

Specifically it violates Title 3- Article VI- Sec. 9 regarding “Sign Regulations” of the city’s zoning ordinance:

What is It

Pepsi’s sign should be classified as an Off-Premise sign as designated by Section 9, Subsection 2-6:

“Any permanent sign which directs the attention of the general public to a business, service, product or activity not conducted, offered or sold as a major portion of business upon the premises where such sign is located.”

Unless the Two-North Twentieth Building starts dripping that sweet brown nectar from its walls, or Pepsi relocates to Birmingham that’s going to make this sign an advertisement for a business or product not at the building. This distinction is necessary because it tells us which regulations will apply to the the giant blue sign.

The Pepsi sign is 176 feet by 57 feet, two sided with a square footage per side of 10,032 square feet and rests more than 17 stories above ground. It is wrapped around former electronic signage.

What Code Does it Violate

Title 3, Article 6, Section 9, Subsection 6-1 a

What it says: This ordinance states that Off-Premise signs cannot exceed a size of “… 800 square feet, with a maximum height of 20 feet and a maximum length of 50 feet.”

How the sign violates it: The Pepsi sign is more than 10 times larger than those square footage requirements, it exceeds the height requirements by 37 feet and the length by 126 feet. Without an exemption from city council this sign cannot legally exist.

Title 3, Article 6, Section 9, Subsection 6-4

What it says: “The maximum height for any Off-Premise sign shall be forty feet above ground level at its base.”

How the sign violates it: Well for starters it sits 17 stories above-ground. Heck, if this sign were placed on top of itself placed at sea-level it would violate this ordinance.

Title 3, Article 6, Section 9, Subsection 6-5 b.

What it says: “No Off-Premise Sign shall be permitted on top of any building or rooftop.”

How the sign violates it: (insert picture of sign on rooftop) I’ll just leave this here.

Title 3, Article 6, Section 9, Subsection 6-7 b.

What it says: “No additional Off-Premise Signs shall be permitted in areas of Special Asthetic Concern…,” and “All Off-Premise Signs shall be removed from all of the named Areas of Special Aesthetic Concern.”

How the sign violates it: It continues to exists within an Area of Special Aesthetic Concern.

Why Buffalo Rock Thinks It’s Right

The basic argument is that because it does not change the dimensions of the former sign above the building it must be construed as merely changing the copy (message) of the sign, which is allowed as “Maintenance.”

The zoning ordinance defines sign maintenance as: “Any cleaning, painting, copy changes, poster panel replacement, or bulb replacement, which does not alter the basic design, structure, size or electrical service to the sign.”

By wrapping the sign in vinyl the design of a previously electronic sign is being fundamentally altered, as the electrical service has been deemed unnecessary.

What Birmingham Should Do

Force it to be taken down or covered until it can be properly approved and get the exemptions it needs. Or, if the city isn’t willing to do that, residents can appeal the city’s decision to allow the sign to the zoning board.

Follow Dave on Twitter at @davefolk

Dave Folk is a yankee transplant living in Birmingham, Alabama.