Sizing Up City Billboard Ordinances Fast

Those who seek to build new billboards in the U.S. quickly learn the necessity of getting permits. Billboards are one of the final regulated industries in America, governed by the Highway Beautification Act from a half-century ago. As a result, selecting a fertile market often comes down to understanding the key components of a city ordinance and what the implications are, as well as to quickly cut loose those that have little promise. So how can you quickly size a market up?

What makes a city look like a good billboard market?

The following are things to be found in a fertile market for new billboard construction:

  • Billboards are legal to begin with. You need to have the ability to build signs or there’s no point in even wasting time in the market. If billboards are prohibited, then just move on.
  • Zonings allowed that are in abundant supply. If the city says that you can only build in all commercial and industrial zonings – and almost every inch of highway frontage in the city is zoned commercial or industrial – then the odds are in your favor.
  • A reasonable spacing between signs. This can vary dramatically between markets, but a spacing of 500’ to 1,000’ between signs is typically fine. Some markets, just to destroy your ability to build new billboards will set the spacing at some ridiculous number like 5,000’ between signs (that’s nearly a mile).
  • An allowed size of at least 60 sq. ft. The smallest standardized billboard in the U.S. is the “8-sheet” which is around 5’ x 12’ in size. If the ordinance only allows signs smaller than 60 sq. ft. then you will have difficulty finding advertisers. Even better is when the market allows 400 sq. ft. to 672 sq. ft.
  • An allowed height of at least 15’. If you build the 8-sheet sign, you want it to be at least 10’ from the ground to the bottom of the sign so that nobody can damage it with graffiti.

What makes a city look like a bad target?

Just as there are signs of a fertile market, there are also signs of a market that has zero potential:

  • No billboards allowed. Well, that’s simple enough. End of story.
  • Few legal locations and all already taken. If the city only allows signs in very rare zonings and all those locations are already taken, then there’s not much more you can do.
  • Deliberate sizes allowed that advertisers would not want. The smallest standardized billboard sign in America is 5’ x 12’, which equates to 60 sq. ft. If the city only allows signs to be 20 sq. ft. or something insanely small, then nobody will want to pay to advertiser on it.

What makes a market worthwhile to try and get variances?

When a city is hostile to billboards, there is one more alternative to just giving up, and that’s to fight back by filing for a variance. A variance is a legal document that allows you to build a billboard even though it’s normally illegal to do so. Here are the clues that a market is worth the effort to attempt to seek a variance:

  • High traffic count. The value of a billboard is always based in a large way by the size of the traffic count that drives past it. If the highway has a huge traffic count, then it’s almost always worthwhile to get a variance.
  • Path of progress. Most American cities grow in one main direction. If you can find a city that is in that path of progress, then you know that your sign will have continually higher traffic and demographics and will grow in value over time.
  • Huge limitation on signs or full moratorium. What makes a sign extremely valuable is when it holds nearly a monopoly position. It just makes sense. If you have the ability to build the only sign in a market due to extremely unfavorable laws, then that sign will be worth the effort of getting a variance.


Some markets are just better suited for building billboards than others. Learn to identify these quickly based on the above observations and you won’t waste time on markets with little potential and instead focus your time on winning ones.

Frank Rolfe started his billboard company off of his coffee table, immediately after graduating from college. Although he had no formal training on the industry, he learned as he went, and developed his own unique systems to accomplish things, such as renting advertising space. Frank was formerly the largest private owner of billboards in Dallas/Ft. Worth, as well as a major player in the Los Angeles market.