Sign code: Know the rules for legal placement

Legally placed sign in Federal Way. - Courtesy photo
Legally placed sign in Federal Way.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

The city is stepping up efforts to boost public awareness of its sign code.

As the weather begins to warm and with an election at year's end, the city is taking the time now to try to make its residents aware of Federal Way's sign code. The code underwent revisions in 2008 when staff began noticing illegally placed signs strewn around the city. Once again, non-complying signs are popping up. Complaints about sign theft and defacement have also been filed recently, city manager and police chief Brian Wilson said.

Sign code

Most private signs, including those on stakes, are not allowed in the right-of-way. The public right-of-way is sometimes hard to define, community development services director Greg Fewins said. Here's some tips he offered for identifying the area. The landscaped strip bordering sidewalks or along roadways is a right-of-way. So is space that is home to utility markers, such as light poles, fire hydrants and utility vaults. Fences sometimes separate private from public property.

Signs can generally be legally placed on the grounds located behind upright-standing utility markers. If multiple markers are present, the sign must be placed behind the marker farthest from the roadway or planter strip.

In 2008, the code was altered to allow for portable private signs in the right-of-way. These signs are often referred to as "A" boards. They must meet strict code standards. Only two signs, not to exceed 6 square feet or 36 inches in height, are allowed per person or event. The signs cannot block pedestrian or vehicle travel, nor can they be placed in planting strips or affixed to surfaces. The signs must be removed at the end of the day.

All city staff in the field pick up illegal signs, Fewins said. The goal is compliance, he said.

Education and enforcement measures

The city has increased its efforts to make the public aware of its sign code. It created a "signs in the right-of-way" link on its Web site. Guidelines for determining if a sign is in compliance are also available on the city's Web site. Photos of signs in compliance and those not in compliance are shown. The web page reviews the code and advises visitors on how to tell where they may legally place their signs. A graphic to help guide residents with sign placement can be found on the city's Web site: Staff is also willing to meet with individuals or groups face to face and educate them on the code, Fewins said.

Measures designed to assist residents in recovering their illegally-placed signs will also go into effect, Fewins said. A running list of the number of signs that have been picked up during this year's campaign season will be available on the Web page. The owners of the sign, if known, will be listed. The signs may be recovered within two weeks of when they've been confiscated. First-time sign code offenders will pay a fee of $5 per sign to regain custody of their sign. Repeat offenders will pay $7 per sign.

In response to citizens' complaints, the city and police department will now also work to follow up on complaints of vandalism or theft of signs. A sign complaint line at (253) 835-2617 is being established. Wilson said the city has received numerous complaints about the theft and destruction of signs. He encourages the public to call 911 to report stolen or vandalized signs.

"We'll take those complaints seriously, he said. "We'll follow up on those complaints."

Learn more

Though not all signs in Federal Way are of a political nature, tampering with political signs is a misdemeanor offense, according to RCW 29A.84.040. Defacing or removing a sign is punishable by imprisonment for a maximum term determined by the court system and not to exceed 90 days, according to the state law. A fine of not more than $1,000 may also be applied, either in conjunction with jailing or on its own, according to the law.

Check it out

In 2008, the city's sign code created controversy. Staff upped enforcement of its sign code by confiscating illegal signs. Owners could retrieve them at a cost of $5. The measure created ripples in the community, especially among those in the real estate and community events fields.

The council heard complaints about the right to free speech and unfairness of the code. During a series of meetings, the city council revisited its code and instructed staff to revise it.

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