June 16, 2006
STATE LAWS GOVERNING PLACING OF SIGNS ALONG HIGHWAYS AND ON PRIVATE PROPERTY
By: James J. Fazzalaro, Principal Analyst
John Rappa, Principal Analyst
You asked what state laws govern the placing of signs on public property such as highway rights-of-way and on private property.
Generally, any outdoor advertising “structure, device or display” requires a permit from the Department of Transportation (DOT). Permits are not required for signs that are no more than six square feet in area and erected by entities such as municipalities, fire districts, service clubs, or churches or ecclesiastical societies that advertise their activities. State law also prohibits advertising signs within 100 feet of public parks, state forests, playgrounds, and cemeteries and within 15 feet of the outside line of a highway under certain circumstances.
The transportation commissioner may order the removal or change in location of any advertisement that obstructs a clear view along the highway. Either the commissioner, or the appropriate local elected official, depending on the highway, must remove any advertisement or sign displayed contrary to the law.
Several other laws also apply to advertisements and signs. Additional restrictions apply along interstate and other limited access state highways, especially outside of urban areas. Signs that use terms that simulate traffic signs such as “stop,” “caution,” or “slow” are prohibited. DOT regulations further specify the types of signs that may be placed on state highways. Holiday lighting, ornaments, and banners may only be suspended over state highways by permit. Finally, state law prohibits putting any playbill, picture, notice, advertisement, or similar thing on a utility pole, tree, shrub, rock or other natural object in any public way or grounds without a permit from the local tree warden or transportation commissioner, as appropriate.
Four state laws authorize towns to regulate where and how people can erect signs. One law provides a general power for towns to establish lines beyond which no one may erect billboards or other specific structures. Zoning laws allow towns to regulate the height, size, and location of signs and billboards. Towns may also exercise tighter control by adopting zoning regulations designed to preserve an area's unique physical character. Finally, the historic preservation laws allow towns to designate districts and establish commissions to regulate how property can be constructed or altered within the established district.
The state laws do no specify minimum requirements for regulating signs so the requirements vary from one municipality to another. Thus while zoning requirements may reflect public safety concerns, village and historic preservation regulation may be more likely to reflect design and aesthetic factors.
LAWS GOVERNING PLACEMENT OF ADVERTISING SIGNS, STRUCTURE, AND DISPLAYS
DOT Permit Required
No one may erect or maintain any outdoor advertising “structure, device or display” until he has obtained a permit for it from the DOT. The application must have attached to it the written consent of the owners of the property on which the structure, device, or display will be placed (CGS § 21-50). The amount of the required permit fee depends on the size of the advertising display. A DOT permit is also required for any person, firm, or corporation that is not an outdoor advertising business to erect an outdoor advertising structure, device, or display other than on property within 200 feet of the place where the goods advertised are manufactured or offered for sale, or where the business is carried on (CGS § 21-51). For these purposes, a “display” includes, in addition to erecting a billboard or structure, the pasting, painting, or posting of any advertisement or sign out-of-doors (CGS § 21-62). A permit is not required for an advertising sign with an area of six square feet or less, from any town, city, borough, fire district, or incorporated fire company, service club, or church or ecclesiastical society for any advertisement owned by it and advertising industries or attractions and maintained at either public or private expense (CGS § 21-55).
Advertisements and signs may not be displayed (1) within 100 feet of any public park, state forest, playground, or cemetery or (2) within 15 feet from the outside line of any highway outside the “thickly settled” or business part of a city or town, except on the walls of a building in which the goods advertised are offered for sale or the business advertised is conducted. The prohibition does not apply to signs erected by the state or a municipality that solely indicate highway directions, traffic regulations, or dangerous places. These requirements may not affect any municipal ordinance or regulation (CGS § 21-58).
The transportation commissioner may order the removal or change in location of any advertisement that, in his opinion, will obstruct a clear view along any highway, or when it is within the legal limits of the highway. He may also order the removal of any advertisement displayed contrary to any provision of the statutes. Advertisements not removed within 30 days of such an order may be removed at the owner's expense (CGS § 21-59).
The transportation commissioner, the selectmen of any town, or the mayor of any city must cause to be removed any advertisement or sign displayed contrary to the requirements of these laws. These officials must remove all advertisements that are less than six square feet in area that have been placed within the prohibited areas noted above. However, the transportation commissioner may, with the consent of the local selectmen, mayor, or borough warden, allow erection of advertising signs designed to benefit local residents or industries within the limits of highways that are not limited access highways, but not in locations where they will obstruct the view along the highway (CGS § 21-61).
Anyone who erects, maintains, displays, or allows to remain in view any advertisement, sign, billboard, or structure in violation of these requirements is liable for a civil penalty of $100 per day imposed by the transportation commissioner. Before imposing the penalty, the commissioner must notify the violator in writing and, if the violation is terminated or corrected within 15 days, no penalty may be imposed. However, if the violation continues for more than 60 consecutive days, it may be considered grounds for revocation of an advertiser's DOT permit (CGS § 21-63, 2006 Supplement).
Other Laws Relating to Signs
No one may place, maintain, or display on, or in view from any highway an unauthorized sign, signal, marking, or device that purports to be or is an imitation of or resembles any official traffic control device (such as a stop or slow sign) that attempts to direct traffic movement or that hides from view or interferes with the effectiveness of any official traffic control device or sign. No one may place or maintain, nor may any public authority permit, commercial advertising on any highway traffic sign or signal. The state or local traffic authority with jurisdiction over the highway may cause any prohibited sign, signal, or marking to be removed without notice as a public nuisance (CGS § 14-310).
By law, outdoor advertising structures, signs, displays, and devices within 660 feet of the edge of the right-of-way of highway on the Interstate Highway system, federal-aid primary system, and other limited access highways are prohibited, except within urban areas, when their advertising message is visible from the main traveled way of the highway. Such signs and structures are prohibited outside of urban areas along these highways even if they are more than 660 feet from the edge of the right-of-way. The following types of signs may be permitted within the 660-foot area, with the approval of the transportation commissioner and subject to regulations he adopts, except if prohibited by state law, local ordinance, or zoning regulation: (1) directional and other official signs and notices, including but not limited to signs pertaining to natural wonders and scenic and historical attractions which are required or authorized by law: (2) signs, displays, and devices advertising the sale or lease of the property on which they are located; and (3) signs, devices, or displays advertising activities conducted on the property on which they are located (CGS § 13a-123).
Subject to DOT regulations and except as prohibited by law, ordinance, or zoning regulation, signs, displays, and devices may be erected within 660 feet of primary and other limited access highways in areas that are zoned for industrial or commercial use or located in unzoned commercial or industrial areas as defined by DOT regulations.
The law prohibits “unauthorized” signs within 300 feet of any state highway. These are signs that have any of the following words: “stop,” “caution,” “danger,” “dangerous,” “warning,” or “slow,” or any other word or character intended to or able to give warning or direction to or interfering with traffic, except if the transportation commissioner approves. However, municipal officers or public utilities may erect any danger or warning sign required by law or any sign designed for the protection of the public or to aid in the utility's operation (CGS § 13a-124). The transportation commissioner may enter any property and remove any sign that does not conform to these requirements. Anyone violating the prohibitions may be fined up to $100 for the first offense and up to $500 for any subsequent offense.
DOT regulations (Conn. Agencies Regs., § 13b-17-19) prohibit signs on state highways except for the following:
1. State, municipal, or federal regulatory or information signs;
2. Church or ecclesiastical society signs that are no more than six feet in area, no more than three feet on any side, and identify the church, location, direction and schedule of religious services (such signs may not be erected on the federal-aid highway system except where federal regulations permit);
3. Informational signs when they will not have a detrimental effect on traffic operations and provided they contain no advertising or commercial name (except as allowed by law under the “logo” signing program for traveler services including food, fuel, lodging, or camping);
4. Entrance and exit signs;
5. Temporary regulatory signs for work within the highway right-of-way; and
6. Service organization signs (where possible with all organization signs combined on one panel on private property.
Informational signs allowed on state highways include signs:
1. Directing people to permanent public buildings, parks, or recreational facilities, usually requested by town officials;
2. Indicating the existence of a natural phenomena;
3. Directing attention to sites of historical or cultural interest made usually by societies organized to perpetuate these sites;
4. Signifying cattle and deer crossing, bkle paths, and similar things;
5. Directing attention to unusual botanical gardens, natural caves, and similar things;
6. Prohibiting normal use of the roadside due to the existence of public water supplies, warning signs of health hazards or danger; and
7. Directing the public to the “off highway” location of major industries in a community.
The regulations specify that permits for Christmas lights, ornaments, and official civic banners to be suspended over a state highway will be issued only for noncommercial purposes. These displays must be suspended so as to clear the pavement by at least 18 feet. Permittees must file certificates covering public liability for a minimum of $500,000 (single limit) and property damage of $100,000 (single) and $200,000 (total) with the DOT district engineer.
A person, firm, or corporation may not affix to a telephone, electric light or power pole or to a tree, shrub, rock, or other natural object in any public way or grounds any playbill, picture, notice, advertisement or other similar thing without a written permit from the town or borough tree warden, city forester, or transportation commissioner, as appropriate for the object and jurisdiction. Violators may be fined up to $50 for each offense (CGS § 23-65). Each object placed in violation of this prohibition constitutes a separate offense. Anyone who deposits or throws any advertisement within the limits of any public way or grounds, or upon private property, unless it is left at the door of the residence or place of business is subject to a fine of up to $50, imprisonment for up to six months, or both for each offence (CGS § 23-65(c)).
STATE LAWS PROVIDING FOR MUNICIPAL SIGN REGULATION
Four laws authorize towns to regulate where and how people and organizations can erect signs. The law specifying towns' general powers allows towns to establish lines beyond which no one may erect billboards or other specified structures (CGS § 7-148(c)(7)).
Zoning laws also allow towns to regulate signs. Towns derive their zoning powers either from the general statute or special acts. Towns zoning under the statutes can regulate the height, size, and location of advertising signs and billboards (CGS § 8-2). Towns zoning under special acts have similar powers since those acts incorporated many of CGS § 8-2's provisions.
Towns zoning under the statutes or special acts can exercise tighter control over signs and billboards by adopting zoning regulations designed to preserve an area's unique physical character. The “village district” statute specifically allows zoning commissions to regulate the size and placement of buildings and structures to maintain public views. In doing so, it allows them to consider how signs and structures affect public views (CGS § 8-2j).
The historic preservation statutes allow towns to designate districts and establish commissions to regulate how property can be constructed or altered there. They specifically allow the commissions to control the style, material, size, and location of outdoor signs and bill posters within the district (CGS §§ 7-147d).
The historic preservation statutes also allow towns to designate individual properties as historic and establish commissions to regulate how they can be changed. They give these commissions the same control over signs and bill posters as historic district commissions (CGS § 7-147s).
Rules and Restrictions
The statutes do not specify minimum requirements for regulating signs. Consequently, the requirements vary from town to town. And, since the regulations adopted under these statutes serve different purposes, they may impose different kinds of requirements. For example, zoning requirements may reflect public safety concerns while village district and historic preservation requirements may reflect design and aesthetic factors.
The statutes address how towns may enforce sign requirements. The municipal powers statutes allow towns to designate municipal officials to issue citations for violating ordinances and fine violators up to $100 (CGS § 7-148(10) (A)).
The zoning regulations authorize towns to appoint zoning enforcement officers (ZEOs) (CGS § 8-3(e)). The historic preservation statutes require the ZEO, building inspector, or any other official specified by ordinance to enforce the historic preservation regulations. They also allow historic commissions to seek court orders to stop or correct violations (CGS §§ 7-147h and 7-147w)).
The fines and penalties for violating zoning and historic preservation regulations also vary. Zoning fines run from $10 to $100 for each day the violation continues. They jump to $100 to $250, up to 10 days imprisonment, or both if the violation is willful. A party that fails to comply with an order to stop the violation is liable for a civil penalty of up to $2,500 payable to the town (CGS § 8-12). Towns can also issue citations for violating zoning regulations and impose up to $150 fines for each day a violation continues (CGS § 8-12a).
The fines for violating historic preservation regulations run from $10 to $100 per day for each day the violation continues and jump to $100 to $250 per day if violation is willful (CGS §§ 7-147h and 7-147w).