Zoning Guide: Philadelphia Sign Permits

Zoning Guide to the Philadelphia Sign Permit

Welcome back to Permit Philly’s Philadelphia zoning guide!  In this series, we’ve covered commercial zoning in Philadelphia, single-family residential zoning, multi-family residential zoning, and that sweet sweet hipster zoning.  Now we’re going to talk about the Philadelphia sign permit.  Warning: this story features graphic descriptions of bureaucracy.

Philadelphia Sign Permits:  A Nightmare Inside a Panic Attack

The Philadelphia Code, which is never the simplest document, gets downright nasty about sign permits.  If you want to put up any kind of sign for anything, you need to get permits.  A sign for your coffee shop, on the door of your coffee shop?  Sign permit!  A new billboard along the highway?  Sign permit!  A small banner outside your gym, saying, “Hey, there’s a gym here”?  Sign permit!

The only notable exceptions to the rule that A Philadelphia Sign Permit is Required for All Philly Signs:

  • temporary outdoor signs, as long as they’re not more than six sq. ft. in a residential building or 12 sq. ft. in a commercial building
  • real estate signs (like, “for sale by Realtor Person”) no bigger than listed above
  • signs inside a building or business that can’t be easily seen from outside (really – there are very specific rules about that part, because the City of Philadelphia doesn’t trust you)
  • window signs – as long as they don’t block more than a fifth of the window

UPDATE: Certain signs are now eligible for application as EZ Sign Permits.  Read more here to see the details.

Okay, got?  Probably not; but feel free to check the City’s reference here.  If that’s a little much all at once, keep reading.

The next thing to know about Philadelphia sign permits is that there are two kinds:  Accessory signs and non-accessory signs.

Accessory Signs

Accessory signs are signs that tell you something about the building.  So if you have an office for your company – called “Awesome Fake Company” – then you’ll want a sign on the building that says, “Awesome Fake Company.”  (Note: do not actually put up this sign.)  That sign is an accessory sign: it’s an accessory to the office inside the building.

Most of the rules governing accessory sign permits can be found on this sheet provided by the City.  You can also check out the City’s Business Services page for information on what to submit with your sign permit application.

Non-Accessory Signs

Non-accessory signs are signs that advertise a company or idea or service that is not tied directly to the sign’s placement.  An easy example is a highway advertising billboard.

This piece will deal mostly with accessory signs.  However, there are some important things to know about non-accessory signs:

  • A non-accessory sign can’t be constructed within 500 feet of another non-accessory sign
  • A non-accessory sign can’t be constructed within 300 feet of a residential building – so, without a zoning variance, no dice on that billboard you were trying to build in the middle of East Passyunk Ave.
  • There are a lot of very detailed height and width controls – too many to easily summarize. Just check the code before putting up a billboard, even if it’s not within 500 feet of another billboard.

So does your sign require a Philadelphia sign permit or not?

Almost certainly yes!  But if you’re still not sure, let the zoning code help you figure it out with this handy chart!  Moving on…

Zoning Sign Permit

If your sign does require a permit, then it will require a zoning permit.  The zoning permit will say, “Yep, you’re totally allowed to build a sign on this building.”

Zoning permits are a little annoying, but certain types aren’t that difficult.  What makes Philadelphia sign permits so tricky is that they require a lot of plans – even for small signs.  You need to provide diagrams to the City with your application showing:

  • Pictures of the building
  • Renderings of the sign on the building – so, another picture of how the sign will look once you put it on the building
  • Architectural plans – really, I’m not making this up – showing both the current building and the place where the sign will go on the building

Keep in mind that the City also has a lot of regulations about what kind of sign – and how large of a sign – you can put on your property.  So having plans isn’t enough: those plans have to match the Code.  And the Code has a lot of rules about the number of signs allowed on each face of the building and how large the signs can be.

You can find a summary of the Code’s accessory sign rules right here.

It’s too much to summarize in one paragraph, but it’s important to know is that on commercial buildings, the size of a sign is tied to the linear feet of the wall.  There’s no simple rule for the size of a sign on a commercial building: it depends on the size of the wall itself.

Residential buildings cap sign size at fifteen sq. ft.  However, you’ll need a variance from the zoning board to use a residential building for a business anyway; so don’t just throw up a 3’x5’ sign on your house!

Also good to know: your sign can’t stick out over the sidewalk very far.  No more than four feet if it’s over ten feet, and less than that at lower levels.  Again: check the Code.  I am not a lawyer or an architect: have your design pros and legal team, as necessary, check the Code!

It’s also important to know that you can’t have anything other that static illumination on most accessory signs.  So no flashing lights or digital displays!  The City will not take that lightly.

All right: you got yourself a zoning permit for your sign!  Can you start building the sign?

Of course not.  This is Philadelphia.  You need…

Building Sign Permit

Yep, a building permit.  Building permits are not required for signs that require no building.  So if you’re literally going to paint your sign on the side of the building, then you only need a zoning permit.  However, most of the time you’re going to build a sign or attach a sign to your building.  So in those cases, you need to submit a building permit application to snare an elusive Philadelphia sign permit.

For the building sign permit, you need all the stuff you collected for the zoning permit: pictures, plans, and a copy of the zoning permit itself.

However, you also need more mechanical information: you need to include information about the fasteners that you’re going to use to attach the sign to the wall.

Again, I need to stress that I am not making this up.  And there’s even a reason for this part!  If you use terrible fasteners and the sign falls down, the City would feel very bad (well, mostly bad about getting sued; but still: awful!).  So: don’t fight it.  Include information on fasteners and other structural details.  Lacking these details can make even the simplest sign application last forever.

Keep in mind that if the sign is super big, you’ll also need a licensed PA engineer to certify the plans and diagrams: the engineer says, basically, “I stake my professional license on this sign surviving a strong wind.”  For a more detailed explanation of these requirements, again check out the City’s accessory sign plan requirements. 

Philadelphia Sign Permit Reviews

Signs get a lot of complaints from the neighbors, so in Philly, sign applications are frequently subjected to review from other boards.  The one you need to worry about the most is the Art Commission.  For almost any sign in Center City, you need Art Commission approval.  We’ll talk about this further in another post, but for now, just check in with these requirements if you’re trying to put up a sign between the rivers and between South Street and Spring Garden.  It’s a whole separate review, but it requires most of the same stuff: plans, pictures, and sign diagrams with a lot of structural detail.

Take heart: there are a lot of signs in Philly

Look, it’s brutal: you have to sink a lot of time and effort into even a small sign in Philadelphia.  But there are so many signs here.  You can do it!  A lot of people have lived to tell the tale.  Just understand that you will need to shell out for an architect or grab existing plans if you have them.

To make it all easier, try the following:

  • Build within the zoning code – don’t try for a variance if you can help it
  • Avoid huge projecting signs
  • Check in advance to see if your sign will require a review by the Sign Commission!
  • If it’s possible to literally paint the side of your building with your sign, do that – you can skip the building permit (but you’ll still need the zoning permit!)
  • If you don’t mind a smaller sign, you can use the EZ Sign Permit rules to apply for a sign with no review of plans

Oh, and one last thing: contact us!  We’d love to help your business get the sign it deserves.

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