There are two ways to approach any problem: to ask permission or to ask forgiveness. So which is the better choice? In this Billboard Mastery podcast we’re going to discuss when to choose one over the other, and what the ramifications are of that selection.
Episode 21: Should You Ask For Forgiveness Or Permission? Transcript
Anytime you do something wrong, there are two paths you can take. You can either ask for permission before you do it, or forgiveness after the fact. This is Frank Rolfe with the Billboard Mastery Podcast. We're going to talk about the choice between forgiveness and permission when all parts of billboard are involved: getting the ground lease, getting the permit, building the sign, renting the ad space. It's a common issue everyone faces. Anytime you're in a gray area, you don't know whether you should ask permission before you do that thing or forgiveness afterwards.
So let's first start off with permits. Let's say you're looking at a billboard. It's already in existence. It's old, it's made of wood, and you're really not sure if it has a permit or a valid permit. Now, if you go to the city and say, "Hey city, I'm looking at bringing this old wooden, abandoned billboard back to life," they'll all say, "Let's look at the file." And then they'll say, "Well gosh, I'm not really sure if this really has a permit on file. Was there ever really a permit to begin with," and more than likely you'll end up not being able to do the sign because no one can find the supportive information from when the sign was built, oh, 50 years ago.
However, if you just go forward and put your ad up on the sign, then what would happen? Well, the city might never notice and even if they did notice they might not take action on it. It's too big a pain in the rear. And then if they even did take action on it and came to you and said, "Well gosh, I thought it had a permit," would they really care enough to take action to figure it all out? The answer is typically not. So in many cases, when you have a gray area on a permit, particularly on an existing sign, you might as well go ahead and take the shot, and let the city come back to you.
Now, when you're evaluating permission versus forgiveness, one big issue is what's the worst case scenario. So I would not want to spend a fortune bringing an old sign back to life under the assumption that it will all work out okay. But often those old wooden abandoned signs, what are you really doing? All you're doing is wrapping it with a vinyl, or maybe replacing the ad face and wrapping with a vinyl. In those cases, if the city came to you and said, "Well we think this is wrong," by the time you resolve it, you probably get your money back. So many times, you're better off just electing to do it and then ask for forgiveness later.
Now, it's a decision you have to make and I'm not urging anyone here to break any sign law, but it's a definite fact that most cities over the decades lose most of that early paperwork. I myself have tried to research files on old signs in the past in microfiche systems at city halls, and what do I find? Well I often find everything goes missing not that many years back. I think people didn't really care much about billboard permits or storing them, so a lot of times all of that is now lost. Once it is lost, it's kind of a glass half full or half empty. To the inspector probably half empty, but to you the optimist trying to bring it back to life probably half full.
Now another issue that can come up, always a gray area with signs, is getting access to the sign. Let's say for example to get to the sign the easy way would be to go through someone's property. The more difficult way through the property of the guy that you've built the sign on. For example, let's assume you've got a sign on a piece of raw land and there's a ravine or something that runs interesting he middle of the land. Well, to get to that sign you're going to have to build some kind of road to get over there. But let's assume your neighbor easily can go straight to the sign. And let's assume there's already a gate there. Would you just come into the neighbor's land? What if there's nothing on the land, it's just raw land? Time and time again you see this happen with billboards where you've got a topography issue blocking you, or maybe trees or some other structure, blocking you from taking the easy route to the sign from the property you're supposed to access it from. Once again, you might be better off just asking forgiveness. If you only have to get through to that property one time only with your equipment to build it, you might be better off to get in there because probably no one would ever know or care.
Now, a lot of this depends on what's going on in the neighboring property. If you're going to go through an actual active business, and certainly if you were to go through somewhere where someone lived, then it would not be a good idea. But if we're talking just simply raw land, then maybe you can get away with it. The first sign I ever built out in Garland, Texas, giant sign, I was trying to get it on a postage stamp sized lot that a veterinarian owned and the only way I could get it built was by going through the neighbor. In this case the neighbor was the highway department. It sounds ludicrous but I took the gamble that I would be able to get it up before anyone would even really notice or care, and that's exactly what happened. By the time they came out and complained and said, "Wait, what are you doing? You crossed through our property," I already had the sign up. So I said, "Oh, I'm sorry," and we removed the equipment, and the sign was already there. Never had to go through their property again because the sign was built. So again, sometimes on property access issues you're better off asking forgiveness than permission.
Now, if you think you can get permission or if you think you should get permission by all means do. I would much rather get permission to go across a property than forgiveness later. But again, it's kind of a gray area. Some property owners believe that if they let you go through their land going that way that you'll have that property owner reciprocate if they need to get through that person's land to yours. So some of them really just don't care at all. But again, it's up to you. If you don't know whether to ask then sometimes you're better off getting forgiveness later, sometimes permission on the front end.
Finally, let's say you want to increase the size or lighting on that sign. The size right now you're a few feet short of optimal height so you think to yourself could I raise that sign up just a tad, will anyone ever really notice? If I take all the panels off and put new panels on, would anyone really notice if those new panels I put on were up a few feet? Or if you've got a sign that's old and the lighting is right there, you could so easily access the electrical, should you add some lights on it? Once again, it's a permission versus forgiveness issue. And once again a lot of that would be based on what your worst case scenario would be. Now normally if you tried to raise the sign up a little and you were caught doing it, they probably would simply ask you to lower it back down. You wouldn't lose the sign as a whole. But perhaps the ordinance reads in your state, county, or city that if you did anything to change the height of the sign or the size of the sign they would negate your permit, so then you might ask definitely permission before you would risk forgiveness.
Now lights are a different matter. Typically if you get caught putting lights on a sign the worst case scenario is they make you just take the lights off. We've had that happen before. So often if it's a light fixture issue, you're always better asking forgiveness than permission because the worst case scenario is where you started out, having no lights at all. It would tie back to what it would cost you to put the lights on but typically putting lights on a sign is not a tremendously high figure.
The bottom line with all of it is all billboard owners, billboard buyers, billboard operators are constantly stuck with having to make these decisions. It's not a perfect world and often it's not a fair world either so you need to go ahead and decide what's best for you, also what the cost is in the worst case scenario if you're wrong, what the legal cost may be if you're wrong, and then make an educated guess. It's all we can do in life is make guesses based on all the information at hand. But sometimes you'll find the right decision is to ask permission. Sometimes the right decision is to ask forgiveness, and then sometimes the right decision is just make the best bet that you can because none of us really hold all the keys to what will happen regardless of what action we take. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.