Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Signs but Were Afraid to Ask

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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Signs but Were Afraid to Ask

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We’ve been at City Hall a fair number of times, but it wasn’t until this week that we had the rather delightful experience of being met by a beatboxing duo at the front door or rocking out to OutKast in the Council Chamber. The occasion for this upending of formality? A town hall meeting, hosted by a network of organizations known collectively as the Beautiful City Alliance. The coalition is working to convince city council to direct revenue from the billboard tax it plans to introduce this summer towards art in the public sphere and is stepping up its campaign efforts as the vote on that tax approaches. The town hall, attended by some two or three hundred artists and activists, as well as several city councillors, was part informational meeting and part pep rally, with a bit of spontaneous art production thrown in for good measure.
The evening was, like the audience, highly eclectic, featuring impassioned speeches by street artists and learned discourses on council’s committee structure by experienced activists. Our favourite moment came when Councillor Adam Vaughan took to the podium with a bit of practical advice for his mostly younger, mostly less experienced comrades-in-arms. He more or less gave a crash course in how to game the bureaucratic system and gain the ear of your local councillor—the key to which is apparently complaining about something other than the thing you really care about until you make it into the circle of trust and then letting loose on your actual gripes. (Thanks, Adam! We’re gonna put that to use really, really soon.) The moments of levity belied a real determination, however—there is a serious movement afoot to see a reorientation of priorities in public space.
In addition to the billboard fee, the City will be proposing a new sign bylaw this summer. Such regulations can overwhelm with their detail and complexity, and so we thought we’d offer a crash course of our own, one in the nuances of the debate surrounding billboards and the taxing thereof. Specifically, we’ve canvassed some of the most prominent activists on this issue to try and gain a better understanding of their concerns and learn what they hope will come of the proposals.


So, who are these activists so concerned with the fate of our billboards? We’ve consulted with Devon Ostrom and Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, both of the Beautiful City Alliance, Rami Tabello of Illegal Signs, and Jonathan Goldsbie of the Toronto Public Space Committee (and also, of course, of Torontoist, though in the context of this article he is speaking, and only speaking, for the TPSC). These activists, along with their respective organizations, have been working for years to build momentum for sign regulation, enforcement, and taxation, and they know, possibly better than anyone, just where the pressure points in this debate lie.
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Why does Toronto need a new sign bylaw?

The regulations that govern billboards and signs were never updated after Toronto’s amalgamation—there are currently six sets of bylaws, one for each of the six old municipalities. The bylaws differ substantially, so that a sign may be perfectly acceptable in one part of the city but fall afoul of the rules in another. In addition to the general inconsistency, this makes it very hard for the City to efficiently determine whether a sign is legal or not and has contributed to the proliferation of illegal signs. Toronto is aiming to replace the existing hodgepodge with a consolidated bylaw to regulate signs across the city. The new bylaw is being packaged with a new billboard tax, which the city currently does not levy.

What does a sign bylaw regulate, exactly?

A sign bylaw lays out a set of criteria that determines what counts as an acceptable billboard or sign. Everything from the height and square footage of a sign to the material from which it’s made can be regulated. The bylaw also includes something like crowd control for billboards, establishing minimum distances between one sign and another, thereby preventing clusters of billboards all showing up in close proximity to one another. This has the effect of limiting the number of billboards that can appear in any given area.

Why is a billboard tax necessary?

First and foremost, to pay for the regulation of the billboards themselves. The City does not currently have the resources to properly enforce its sign bylaw, which is one of the reasons so many billboards in the city are illegal but still standing. To ensure that the bylaw is respected, the City needs to build a comprehensive listing of existing billboards, expand its staff of bylaw officers, and have funds to combat any legal challenges issued by the billboard industry. As summarized by Goldsbie: “It’s about forcing an industry that for decades has prospered from its lawlessness to cough up the money that the City needs to adequately police it. It’s not too different from how we make the manufacturers of certain products (partially) cover the costs of our recycling programs.”
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What are the odds that the proposed bylaw and tax will pass a Council vote?

Extremely high. The City needs a new sign bylaw and has already indicated that it thinks that a billboard fee is also appropriate. Tabello told us that the proposal “has a very broad base of support from the left, centre, and right.”

Why all the fuss then?

Devil, meet details. Though the bylaw and billboard tax will almost certainly pass a vote, the exact wording of the bylaw’s provisions and exact rate of the tax have not yet been determined. There are two major points of contention that have yet to be ironed out: the variance application process and the allocation of revenue generated by the tax.

What is a variance, and why does it matter?

Tabello, an expert in sign variances, explains: “A variance is an exception to the bylaw which allows a billboard company to legally maintain a sign that does not comply with the bylaw.” If a company wants to, for instance, put up a sign that is taller than the allowable limit or install a video billboard rather than a plain old vinyl one, it needs to petition for permission to do so. Signs that require variances are, as a general rule, bigger and louder than the norm. A variance can also be requested if someone wants to put up a new sign that is closer to an existing one than is allowed. Such a variance is, in essence, a request to increase the number of signs that are permitted in a particular area.
In theory, variances are intended to provide a mechanism for accommodating minor technical discrepancies between a sign a company wants to install and the established criteria—the spirit of the bylaw is still supposed to be respected. Variances can and often are abused, however, so that they may end up functioning as loopholes that allow companies to put up signs that are much more intrusive, either in nature or number, than they are supposed to be.

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Councillors Adam Vaughan (top) and Joe Mihevc (bottom).

How are variances granted?

Currently, variance applications are heard by community councils. Community councils are committees of Toronto’s overall City Council, made up of councillors from a particular part of the city (Etobicoke, East York, North York, etc.). They allow for local decision making, so that if a company wants to put up a larger-than-allowable billboard in a certain neighbourhood, councillors from that specific area of the city will be the ones deciding whether or not to permit this. The frequency with which a particular community council grants variances tends to depend on the political leanings of its members: some councillors tend to allow many variances and others to permit relatively few.

Why is the variance application process a point of contention?

If the new billboard tax is passed, and variance applications continue being run through community councils, the worry is that councillors will feel pressured to approve many more variance applications because of the tax revenue that this will generate. Once the tax is introduced billboard companies will try harder than ever to get variances for larger signs: these bring in more money and will help the companies offset the cost of the new tax. Companies will also attempt to get variances for existing illegal billboards rather than taking them down, effectively trying to grandfather in those signs. Rather than simply going by their political preferences, councillors will come under a new kind of pressure to approve these variance applications in order to increase cash-flow to the City. The net effect might be to greatly increase the number and footprint of billboards in Toronto.
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Are there alternatives to the existing variance approval process?

Public space activists have been asking for an arm’s length, quasi-judicial body to hear variance applications, one that is not composed of elected city councillors and thus one that is not subject to political pressure via the enticement of increased revenues. Another option would be to regulate the variance application process itself, by drawing up a strict set of criteria that a variance application would need to meet before it could even come up for consideration. This would narrow the latitude community councils have in deciding whether to grant a variance and thus alleviate some of the political pressure they might otherwise face.
What is essential in either case, says Chaleff-Freudenthaler, is that there is a “depoliticized variance process that ensures that decisions are made according to and aligned with the spirit of the new signs bylaw, as opposed to one that can be used as a means to raise additional money through the billboard fee.” Simply put: the people who approve or deny variance applications need to be free to apply the bylaw without prejudice.

How will the billboard tax revenue be allocated?

This is the other great sticking point. The first priority will be to fund bylaw enforcement, but it is very likely that the billboard tax will bring in more money than is needed for that. (Just how much more won’t be known until the City settles on a fee structure and until billboard companies are forced to release information about the value of their signs.) The money could, in theory, go to the City’s general revenues, or it could get earmarked for specific programs or policy initiatives.

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Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler and Devon Ostrom.

What is the Beautiful City Alliance? What is its interest in the billboard issue?

The Beautiful City Alliance is a coalition of more than forty groups who believe that billboard tax revenue should be directed to arts funding. The rationale for this, according to Ostrom, is “offsetting the damage that billboards cause to the visual landscape. Also, every other form of advertising we have gives us something back.” His point is essentially that the ads in a magazine underwrite that magazine’s content and thus provide benefit to the readers who see the ads, but the ads in our public spaces do not, right now, come with any attendant benefits at all—they don’t underwrite any positive contribution to the public sphere. By allocating billboard tax revenue to the arts this imbalance will be redressed (Ostrom described it to us as a “remedial act”), as the City will be able to financially support artistic activity that enhances our public spaces. The great fear is that the money may wind up simply going into the City’s general coffers and not be put to the specific purpose of enhancing public space.

What happens next?

Intense discussions will be taking place over the next few weeks as the draft bylaw is formulated. The billboard industry is lobbying members of council, and activist groups are trying to balance those efforts with a concerted push for a stringent set of regulations. The billboard tax will come up for debate at a meeting of the Executive Committee on June 2; the various provisions of bylaw itself will come before various other committees (such as Planning and Growth Management, and Licensing and Standards) during the June cycle of meetings.
All photos of the Beautiful City Alliance town hall meeting by David Topping/Torontoist.

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