If there was a contest for confusing, often arduous bureaucracies, crisscrossed by byzantine rules and regulations, New York City may well be the reigning world champion. The local laws that govern outdoor sign installation, along with the agencies tasked with enforcing those statutes, are no exception.
Fortunately, once you understand the essence of these rules and how they relate to the organization of city government — along with a little background on how they came about — they can suddenly seem much more manageable.
To make things a bit simpler, we’ve outlined the basics, along with some relevant historical footnotes to help you understand and deal with the system more effectively and while you may not be able to beat city hall, you can often win by avoiding the battle altogether.
And (to use another pair of goofy but true clichés) if an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then taking a (New York) minute to review the following information may help you head off tons of trouble.
Must Read: NYC Outdoor Signs Rules & Regulations
There are two main laws, or rather, sets of laws governing the regulation of signs and billboards in New York City:
- The New York City Building Code, which regulates the hanging and maintenance of signs — including what they are made of — and concentrates on public health and safety issues, such as the potential for fire or falling debris.
- The New York City Zoning Resolution focuses more on the look, or how a sign affects the quality of life in a particular neighborhood — or on a specific section of a street. It restricts the size, height, surface area, and even how bright signs are.
As far as the city agencies in charge of these rules, regulations, and laws — the construction and maintenance of outdoor signs is usually in the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Buildings or DOB.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission can also rule on sign permittance if it involves an issue of a landmarked and/or historic building or district. Appeals to decisions on violations are handled by the Board of Standards and Appeals, followed by the New York State Supreme Court.
Appeals regarding rejected applications can first be ruled on by that borough’s Buildings Commissioner, but we’ll get more into that later.
While it may seem subjective or even silly, there are set zoning districts in New York with obvious and stark contrasts in their aesthetic appearance. Think about the difference between Times Square in Manhattan and then some leafy, residential brownstone-lined side street in Brooklyn.
A multi-story screen blaring ads for soda or the latest designer label would quite understandably fit right in at the first location — and not so much at the second.
(Most indoor notices and signs, which aren’t covered in this article, are enforced by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or HPD. You can also find HPD compliant building signs here).
Advertising vs. Accessory Signs
The largest legal differentiation of outdoor signs — whether in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, or the Bronx — depends on whether a sign is considered accessory to property, or advertising something not found there. Zoning Resolution Article 1, Chapter 2, Section 12-10 defines exactly what “accessory use” of signage means to the city.
First, the use (meaning whatever the sign is talking about, usually a good or service) declared on the sign must be conducted on the same property. It must also have a readily apparent connection to the principal use, or the main business being conducted, on the same lot. That use must also be undertaken either by of the owners of that land — or done for the benefit of the owners, occupants, employees, customers, or visitors of the site. If these three criteria are not met, the sign is considered advertising.
And if a sign doesn’t fall happen to fall into either the accessory or advertising category, it is regulated as an accessory sign. The next biggest determiner of whether a sign is kosher or contraband is which type of zone the sign is located in. Whether it’s standing in a residential, commercial, or manufacturing district — or situated along a highway or near a park — it will often tell you at a glance if you’re in the clear.
The NYC Zoning Resolution bans advertising from residential areas — but allows for limited accessory signage. The Zoning Resolution also allows “for sale” and “for rent” signs twelve square feet or smaller, along with community facility flags, banners, or pennants. Signs for off-street parking are also allowed, on the condition that they are not larger than two square feet for each entrance and/or exit. Community facilities are categorized as Use Groups 3 and 4 (each use has its own category) in the NYC zoning resolution.
Included in Groups 3 and 4 are uses such as:
- Places of Worship
- Skating rinks
- Non-Commercial Art Galleries
Zoning Resolution for Signage NYC
Illuminated or lighted signs are only permitted in designated residential districts for healthcare-related facilities, such as hospitals. On top of that, they also need to fulfill the following criteria:
- Must be limited to 25 square feet — or 15% of total street frontage – whichever is smaller.
- The Commissioner of the Buildings Department decides if light negatively affects nearby homes.
- Illuminated signs must also follow all other regulations for signage in a residential area (must not extend into the street by more than 12 inches; and cannot rise above the ceiling of a ground floor, or 20 feet above the curb — whichever is smaller).
- Residential buildings are allowed one square foot nameplate per unit for occupant identification. Commercial or other non-residential buildings can have one 12-square-foot sign to id both its address and the name of its management. On the other hand, community facilities can display up to 16 square feet billboards.
- Lettering featured in signs, on regular buildings not considered community facilities that are part of awnings or canopies cannot be more than 12 inches tall.
Sign regulations can be much more complex in commercial areas. Accessory signs allowances are determined by how high sign can be, how far it can stick out, how large it is vis-à-vis the building’s frontage, and also by illuminated sign laws. The greater the frontage, the larger an accessory sign may be.
Advertising signs are limited to only C6-5, C6-7, C7, and C8 commercial districts. We could probably write an article on the different commercial zones. Here is a Zoning Table for Commercial Districts to help you make more sense of it all.
Since both advertising and accessory signage is allowed in these four zones, the differences between advertising and accessory are less important than other commercial districts — from C1 up through much of C6. In C1-C6, a sign may be deemed illegal due to advertising another business not sharing the same premises.
Manufacturing Districts Manufacturing areas contain much less restrictive signage laws than residential or commercial zones.
All three types of manufacturing zones — whether M1, M2, or M3 — generally allow for both accessory and advertising signs, unless otherwise indicated.
To find the allowable square feet of signage area in any location, multiply the length of the lot frontage by either five, for illuminated signs — or six, for non-illuminated signs.
The maximum ceiling (or the largest a sign may be) is 1200 square feet for larger properties.
If the building is in a vicinity of residences, including non-conventional conversions — such as joint live-work residences for artists — the size is limited to 750 square feet.
For close to 80 years, New York City has banned billboards (defined as any advertising sign) within 200 feet of arterial highways. Accessory signage, meanwhile, is allowed but must be made smaller, usually no more than 500 square feet.
In 1965, the United States Congress, through the Highway Beautification Act, began to encourage states and municipalities to prohibit billboards near interstate highways by withholding federal highway funds from states and localities that didn’t restrict advertising signage.
Since NYC would not be able to even begin to comply with many of these conditions, existing highway billboards were grandfathered in. Many of these signs, some quite well know, still stand today.
Then, in the early 1990s, the city dramatically increased fines for non-grandfathered signs in order to dissuade a generation of new, interloping billboard operators from capitalizing on the price to advertise in these prime locations a price which had been significantly higher than the previously existing penalties.
Suppose you’re assuming arterial highways are limited to expressways and interstates. In that case, the reader may be interested to note that some major streets leading to highways or bridges — as well as many parkways — are considered arterial highways.
You can find a complete list of designated arterial highways in NYC here. Since 1999, the Department of Buildings requires applicants for accessory sign permits to include its distances to any nearby arterial highways, or parks — which we’ll dive into next.
Billboards are also banned from being within the view of any park which is half-acre or larger. This effectively excludes advertising signage from being placed near all but the smallest parks and playgrounds. As with highways, accessory signs are allowed, but must be smaller, usually maxing out at 500 square feet. Here’s a list of all New York City parks .5 acres or larger.
New York City Department of Buildings permits may also be required for sign installation.
There are currently three types of DOB permits:
- Construction – construction permit is mandated if the sign is larger than six square feet unless it is painted.
- Electrical – electricity permits are necessary if … you guessed it — the sign uses electricity.
- Illuminated – an illuminated sign permit needs to be renewed every year and incurs a separate fee.
Applications for electrical permits are filed with the main DOB office. However, construction and illuminated sign permits must be filed in the DOB borough office where the sign is to be located.
If the planned sign is going up in a historic district, an application must also be submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Landmarks also issue three types of permits:
- Minor work – which means there was no DOB permit necessary and will not affect the inherent architectural integrity of the building in question, such as with a painted sign or sign smaller than six square feet.
- No effect– indicates a DOB permit was needed, but the sign will not alter the architectural details of the building.
- Appropriateness – is used when the architecture will be changed, and requires a public by the Landmarks and Preservation Commission. Once a permit is approved, the owner must find a licensed sign hanger to fasten the sign to the building.
Types of licensed sign hangers
- A specialized sign hanger – means a sign hanger can install signs up to 150 square feet or 200 pounds.
- A master sign hanger– can hang any size sign.
The DOB maintains a list of licensed sign hangers, which can be found right here:
Violations, Applications, and the Appeals Process
There are only three ways an accessory or advertising sign identification issue can be adjudicated by a court or administrative agency:
- Notice of Violation is issued by the Department of Building’s Sign Enforcement Unit and can be appealed by a hearing at the Environmental Control Board.
- Rejection of Application, which can be appealed to that borough’s Buildings Commissioner. If the borough commissioner rejects the application, that can be appealed to the Board of Standards and Appeals.
- Environmental Control Board or Board of Standards and Appeals decisions can be further appealed to the New York State Supreme Court.
The labyrinth of laws involving the construction, size, and appearance of signs can be overwhelming to a new landlord or business owner, but there are experts out there, including attorneys who specialize in outdoor advertising. You can also contact Sign Company New York for any questions about a sign you would like to hang, indoors or outdoors.