Reviewing Toronto’s regulations

Photos courtesy Ted Van Vliet

Photos courtesy Ted Van Vliet

By Peter Saunders
Toronto’s sign bylaw unit is currently reviewing its municipal regulations, particularly those relating to electronic message centres (EMCs) and other forms of outdoor illuminated and digital signs and billboards. This process has involved collecting public and industry input with regard to potential bylaw changes for both first-party and third-party signage, as well as traffic safety implications.

The following are some of the specific issues being considered as part of this review:

  • Locations where illuminated and electronic signs should be allowed in the city.
  • The effect of these signs on surrounding neighbourhoods.
  • The effect of these signs on public spaces.

All Toronto residents and businesses have been encouraged to participate in the process and provide feedback about these important issues.

The need for a new review
In July 2012, city council directed the sign bylaw unit to undertake a major review, including a study of the impact of electronic signs, and report back within two years (i.e. by July 2014).

At the time, there were many site-specific applications for sign variances across Toronto, i.e. to permit signs not covered by existing regulations. The sign bylaw included a process for considering these site-by-site regulatory amendments, but if municipal policy were to be created solely on such a basis, there would be no comprehensive regulations. So, as the volume of these applications rose above anticipated levels, with a trend toward the installation of more electronic signs, the need for a new review became apparent.

Many churches, schools and community centres integrate ‘readograph’ EMCs into larger sign structures. This has raised the issue of illumination guidelines in residential areas.

Many churches, schools and community centres integrate ‘readograph’ EMCs into larger sign structures. This has raised the issue of illumination guidelines in residential areas.

The bylaw was previously revised in 2008 and 2009 and a new version passed in 2010, reflecting an effort to harmonize various rules in the wake of the 1998 amalgamation of six former municipalities (Old Toronto, York, Etobicoke, North York, East York and Scarborough). Regulatory exceptions were made for ‘special sign districts,’ including Chinatown and Yonge-Dundas Square, which are known for particularly large and bright signage, and a distinction was made between residential and commercial zones. Illuminated signs were widely permitted, while electronic signs were not.

Since then, other Canadian jurisdictions have introduced new regulations with respect to electronic signs.

In February 2013, Toronto’s planning and growth management committee asked staff to report specifically about the effects of illuminated signs in residential areas and to make recommendations accordingly. This was due to demand for illuminated signs among schools, churches and other organizations operating within residential neighbourhoods.

The current study has comprised three parts:

  • Planning and design review.
  • Public opinion poll.
  • Transportation safety review.

Planning and design review
Toronto’s planning and design review identified a number of potential ‘impacts’ of illuminated and electronic signs, including inconsistent or excessive brightness, light spilling onto adjacent properties, signs illuminated at undesirable times, disturbing electronic transition effects and public safety concerns relating to driver and pedestrian distraction. There was also a concern that many signs are not designed to fit with local architecture or to accommodate other urban design considerations.

Toronto’s sign bylaw includes controls for the brightness of digital billboards.

Toronto’s sign bylaw includes controls for the brightness of digital billboards.

The review considered performance standards for electronic signs in other jurisdictions across North America.

Public opinion poll
Toronto’s sign bylaw unit commissioned Ipsos Reid to conduct research among the public to better understand attitudes, opinions and behaviours associated with electronic and illuminated signs around the city. A representative sample of more than 1,500 Toronto residents over the age of 18 were surveyed online from July 5 to 18, 2013.

The survey found the vast majority (70 per cent) of residents believed these types of signs are a normal part of public spaces in big cities like Toronto; 55 per cent said they contribute to the look and vibrancy of cities; and 48 per cent said they are an attractive element of Toronto’s cityscape (while only 25 per cent disagreed).

That said, when asked whether or not they were concerned about the negative impacts of signs on the look of their neighbourhood or their enjoyment of their home, Torontonians were generally split, with about one-third agreeing, one-third disagreeing and one-third in the middle. Those living downtown or in north Scarborough tended to be more concerned than others.

While 63 per cent of Torontonians said electronic and illuminated signs are useful to them, it is worth noting 55 per cent said the city needs to do more to control their use. Most respondents did not have an issue with when the signs are illuminated, nor with how many are installed across the city.

Overall, the poll indicated people were agreeable to electronic signs in commercial and industrial areas, but not in residential neighbourhoods.

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