City Council Meeting: September 10, 2013

Agenda Item: 7-B  

To: Mayor and City Council 

From: David Martin, Director of Planning and Community Development

Subject: Proposed Ordinance Amending the Sign Code to Allow the City and Schools to Use Animated Signs for Public Safety and School Purposes



Recommended Action

Staff recommends that the City Council approve amendments to the City's Sign Code to allow the City to use animated signs for traffic circulation and public safety purposes and to allow primary and secondary schools to use animated signs for school purposes.


Executive Summary

The City's Sign Code currently prohibits all animated signs. However, the City routinely uses animated signs to direct traffic and minimize congestion; and many schools use them to apprise the community about school operation and events. The proposed ordinance would amend the Sign Code to legalize the use of animated signs for traffic circulation and public safety purposes, a specific type of signage regulation that is supported by First Amendment case law. Additionally, staff proposes an amendment that would allow primary and secondary schools to use animated signs for school purposes.



The Santa Monica Sign Code regulates signage within the City in order to promote aesthetic and environmental values and protect traffic safety, while allowing ample opportunity for communication. The Sign Code expressly recognizes the first Amendment rights of all to communicate through signage but regulates the place and manner of such communication to avoid visual blight, decrease the risk of accidents caused by distraction and confusion, and preserve the City's desirability as a place to live, work and visit. Among other things, the Sign Code: exempts certain types of signs from regulation; requires Architectural Review Board (ARB) review and permits for certain other sign types; imposes sign area restrictions by district; and prohibits specified types of signs.


One category of prohibited signs is "animated signs", which are defined as signs with "any visible moving part, flashing or osculating lights, visible mechanical movement of any description, or other apparent visible movement achieved by any means." SMMC Sections 9.52.150 and 9.52.030. However, despite this prohibition, there are animated signs within the City. The City, which is subject to the restrictions of the Sign Code, uses animated signs to direct traffic in order to promote traffic safety and ease congestion. There is also an animated sign at the Civic Center, but it is allowed pursuant to a "sign adjustment" granted through a variance procedure. In addition to the City's animated signs, several public schools within the City have animated signs, and at least one private school has notified the City that it wishes to install one.



Regulating signage is challenging because signage is legally classified as "speech" and First Amendment protections apply. Thus, the City can regulate the place and "manner" (type) of signs to advance certain governmental interests but cannot regulate based on sign content. Legal challenges to sign ordinances are common and often successful. Indeed, the City's own ordinance was challenged in federal court about twenty years ago; and the City settled that case to preserve the ordinance. The Sign Code itself has not been challenged since (though individual signage determinations have been). However, any significant change to the ordinance potentially creates the risk of another challenge a noteworthy risk given the number of First Amendment challenges that the City has faced in recent years.


The proposed ordinance would amend the Sign Code by exempting municipal roadway signage used to protect traffic circulation and public safety from the prohibition against animated signs. The City already uses animated signs on roadways to warn of hazards and reduce congestion by directing traffic and providing parking information. And, the City plans to increase usage of such animated signs. Thus, creating an exception to the prohibition against animated signs for roadway signage used by the City to protect public safety will conform the law to the City's present and future practices. It will also effectuate one of the express purposes of the Sign Code: enhancing traffic safety. Staff believes that this proposed change does not entail significant legal risk. The City has a compelling and indisputable interest in preserving traffic circulation and roadway safety, and the case law affords support for this exemption.


The proposal to allow animated signs on schools is a somewhat different matter. At present, several public schools within the City have animated signs. These signs exist, despite the Municipal Code prohibition, partly because school districts are state entities and are therefore exempt from local land use regulations in performing their educational mission. Whether or not the Sign Code is a land use regulation may be debatable, but because the School District is arguably exempt from the Sign Code, the City has not challenged its use of animated signs.


In contrast, the private schools in Santa Monica are not state entities. Nonetheless, at least one of them has requested the opportunity to utilize the same type of signage as the public schools utilize to notify the community of school events, the school calendar, and other matters related to their educational mission.


In the proposed ordinance language has been added to Section 9.52.140(a) stating that: "primary and secondary schools may utilize animated signs on school property for school purposes." Consistent with the safety and aesthetic purposes of the Sign Code, staff recommends against any broader exemption.


Whether private schools should be authorized to use animated signs is mainly a policy question for Council. There is some legal risk because creating an exemption for schools communicating school-related information could be seen as regulation based on content. On the other hand, arguably all schools in the community should have similar opportunities.


And, all schools, both public and private, fulfill vital functions in the City that are crucial to the City's success and the public welfare. Schools provide unique services and benefits in a number of ways. Most obviously, they forge the City's future by educating its children. Beyond that, they strengthen the social fabric by creating connections between school families and others. And, because they can make the City a better and more desirable place to live, they enhance property values. Because of these benefits and others, the City of Santa Monica has long partnered with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and Santa Monica Community College on a variety of endeavors and has also supported other entities and groups that serve the community through education. In short, signage that allows the City's schools to communicate with the community about their work is good for the schools and is therefore also good for the community.


However, creating a special exemption to the prohibition against animated signs for schools could create practical issues and legal risks. The City cannot control the particular messages displayed on the signs though it can probably enforce the requirement that signage relate to the school's educational mission. And, the exemption could be challenged in court.



As proposed, the amendment would effectively exempt schools from all of the restrictions in the Sign Code. That is, requirements relating to obtaining a permit, ARB review, and area (size) limitations would not apply. An alternative would be modifying the proposed amendment relating to schools so that the signs would be allowed but regulated. For example, they could be allowed subject to a permitting requirement and ARB review or subject to uniform restrictions on size or placement.


Alternatively, the City could limit the exemption to City traffic circulation and traffic safety signage, and private schools could seek sign adjustments like the one granted for the Civic Auditorium.

Financial Impacts & Budget Actions

There is no immediate financial impact or budget action necessary as a result of the recommended action.


Prepared by: David Martin, Planning & Community Development Director




Forwarded to Council:







David Martin, Director

Planning and Community Development




Rod Gould

City Manager


Attachment: Proposed Ordinance