What makes billboards valuable is the limited supply allowed under the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. This Act disrupted the balance between supply and demand, which gives sign owners the upper hand in maintaining high occupancy and rents. It also means that you don’t have to worry about excessive competition ruining your sign’s value. But part of the Highway Beautification Act is the requirement for permits. In this Billboard Mastery podcast we’re going to discuss permits in-depth, and what I’ve learned about them over the years.
Episode 17: Permits, Permits, Permits Transcript
Permits, permits, permits. The billboard industry just seems to have so many permits. What's with the permits? Well, this is Frank Rolfe with The Billboard Mastery podcast. We're going to talk about nothing but permits. What they are, what they came from, and what you need to know if you want to succeed in the world of permits.
Well, let's start off why there are so many permits required in billboards, and that's a simple answer. There didn't use to be. Back in the 1920s, the '30s, the '40s, and the '50s, all the way up until 1965 you didn't need a permit to build a sign, you build them anywhere you wanted. People built them everywhere. Look at pictures of old Route 66. There must be a billboard every three feet in those old photographs. So many billboards that they're built a little higher, a little lower, to the left, to the right of each other, almost is a giant visual blockade, you can hardly even see where you are. However, in 1965, Ladybird Johnson brought out the Highway Beautification Act under then-President LBJ. With a signature with a pen, LBJ launched into the fact that the US government forevermore would be regulating the placement of billboards in the United States. When the Highway Beautification Act was signed into effect in 1965, we were forever stuck in a world of permits, permits, permits.
What do you need to know about those permits? Well, for most billboards, you're going to need either one or both of a state permit if you are outside of city limits, could be a city permit if you're inside of a self-controlled city with city permits, or you may need both a state permit and a city permit. Typically, one of those three you will have to get in order to build a billboard. Let's start off with the city. A city, we all know what a city is. Some cities are what are called self-controlled, and others are not. Self-controlled means that they have an agreement with the state to file their own permits. In those cities, you don't need a state permit in a city, you only need the city permit. There's other cities, though, that are typically not quite so large, the state doesn't trust them to be self-controlled. In those cities, you must get the city permit and the state. Then, of course, most of America is not in a city limits. If you look at a map and look at the city limits, all those little circles around cities, you'll see by far, the majority of the US continent does not fall into limits. That would then only require a state permit.
Now, in the city side, typically, they're only going to give you a permit for property that has certain zonings. Typically, non-residential, commercial, and industrial are the zonings that they will require. There may be other issues beyond just the zoning. There may be radiuses from on-ramps, off-ramps, and churches and other items. Then you have the state itself. The state is typically less restricted than the city in some ways, but more than others. In most states in America, if you want to build a billboard, you have to be in what's called un-zoned commercial. Now, that's not up to me to decide. That's based on how the state handbook defines un-zoned commercial. It can be because there's two businesses side by side along the highway, it can be there's just one business there. It all falls down to your state. But, once you understand the state laws, you have them for a lifetime. They're good throughout the state. City laws, city permits, however, vary from city to city. When you're looking at a city, you have to get the laws from scratch. The state, however, translates pretty much throughout everywhere.
What's the key, then? Well, the first thing you need to know, what are the laws? In most states, if you're going to get a state permit, you'll have to get a state license. Now, not all cities require a state license. Some do, some don't, so you need to first find out about the state license and how that works. If you want to start pulling permits, you may have to go ahead and get a state license in advance before you can even pull a permit. Then, you have to really know the laws of the city and the state. Get that state handbook on billboard regulations and study it and memorize it. The same on the city, because you can't really file for permits and get them unless you know what the laws are, otherwise, your application will typically be denied.
You also have to know the application process. States have their own certain application forms for billboards, as do cities. You need get a copy of these forms and see what information you have to provide and how they want it to be provided. Some are insanely simplistic. Some of them are seemingly much, much more complicated. They're all completely different. You just have to know how that works. If you're going to fill out a permit, then there's basically three key things you need to know.
You're going to have to decide first what size the sign will be, because every state, every city in America does have a maximum size. Sometimes it's changed over the years. Back when the Beautification Act began, the biggest sign you could build was a 12, sorry, a 20 by 68, a 1,200 square foot sign. In later years, many states decided that it was just simply too big. You need to know what the maximum size is in your city or your state. Then you have to decide based on the maximum size, how big would you really build? I would recommend you build a sign that's equivalent in size to all the other billboards on the same road. Why? You don't want to build a sign that looks visually smaller than the others. It will be very hard for you to rent. Nor do you really need one that's gigantically bigger than the others, because it's very expensive and you may not get any extra ad rent for it. Figure out first what size you want to build, and it's mostly about keeping up with the Joneses. You want to see what other people are building, and that's probably your answer.
Next, what are you going to build as far as a height? Because, that's the other big component of a permit, is how tall will the billboard be. First question is, how tall can I build it? Some states and cities measure the maximum height from the height of the ground to the top of the sign, but others measure it from the highway road bed itself to the stop of the side. There can be a huge difference. If you're in an area that allows, let's say, 50 feet from the highway road bed to the top of the sign, but the land itself is 20 feet lower than the road bed, now you can build a 70 foot tall sign and still meet that criteria. If, however, it's based on the height from the ground to the top and it was 50 under that same circumstance, your sign would only be 30 feet above the road bed. You've got to know that issue on height.
Then, you also have to know what height you need to get above the clutter. I always talk about the fact you need to flag any sign to make sure that you are above obstructions. What's flagging mean? It means you take what's called a flagging pole, which is a surveyor's tool, that you have these different fiberglass sections that you turn. It comes as one big pole, and you pull up on each section and twist, it snaps into place. Those things would go about 45 feet in the air. Or you can get a sky hook crane, which is the smallest of the crane variety, and you can have it go up to the height of the proposed sign and see if you're clear of all the issues. Some people even use helium balloons. I think a helium balloon is better than nothing, but you have to find some way to make sure you are above all of the visual debris that will block your sign. Once you've established what that height is, the next question is, is it legal? If the answer is yep, that height works. I'm free of the clutter, and also I'm still within the realm of the city or the state. Well, then, there you go on the height.
The final item is, what type of sign do you build? Do you build it out of wood, steel I-beam, or Monopole? Again, it's going to go down to what are the specific facts of the sign that are going to make you pick one or the other? If you're in a rural area with no buildings around and no one to complain, you may just want to go multipoled wood. Why? It's the cheapest. It's also the simplest to build. If you're in more of an urban setting, well then wood may not work. You might try I-beam, but I-beam may not work because the landowner says it's too ugly. If you want to be able to move the pole around on the property, to hide it from view, behind a building, to the right of the front door, then a Monopole maybe the only thing that fits.
Also, what's the size of the ground space you have to work with for building the sign? If it's a very narrow strip between the edge of the property and the building, then I-beam may be your best choice. But, you've got to figure out, A, what structure you need to build based on what's on the ground, but then the other issue is, what kind of sign can you build based on your budget? Because, steel Monopoles are very, very expensive. Wooden telephone poles are a fraction of that price. It may be that you build a wooden sign of a certain height and a certain size out of wood, simply to meet your budget, to make the numbers tie together. Of course, the premier signs are the steel Monopole, but the problem is those premier signs, also like a premier car, are very, very expensive.
Finally, you've got to learn the system. You'll find that every state, every city on the permitting side, they all have their own system, their own rhythm of how it all works. You make your filing, you pay your fee, and you get approved or denied, but you'll see there's a similarity in applications that get approved and those which get denied. You want to learn what the person who approves them, that eyes them, is looking for. Don't be afraid to ask. If your permit is denied, there's nothing wrong with asking them why was it denied. I thought I met all the requirements. I thought it was the right distance from the other side down the street. I thought I had correct distance from all the entrance ramps and exit ramps. Why in the world have you denied me?
That's not a bad question. You may learn all kinds of things within that answer. There's certainly every reason to believe that you can find every permit you apply for as an educational experience to come away a smarter person and a better, more successful potential billboard owner. This is Frank Rolfe with The Billboard Mastery podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.