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McHenry County sign ordinance looser after U.S. Supreme Court ruling

WOODSTOCK – The ordinance governing land use for McHenry County’s unincorporated areas now contains much looser sign regulations to reflect a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

County Board members earlier this month approved an overhaul of the sign chapter of its new Unified Development Ordinance in the wake of the 2015 ruling that concluded the very act of classifying signs for regulatory purposes is likely content-based regulation and, therefore, runs afoul of the First Amendment. In short, the ruling makes any ordinance requiring a sign to be read in order to be enforced constitutionally suspect.

The changes eliminate all mention of classifying signs based on content, such as differentiating signs for real estate, events and elections. Classifications now focus exclusively on sign construction, type and whether they are temporary or permanent.

A small church in Gilbert, Arizona, won the court victory after it sued the city over an ordinance that treated its directional signs to the different locations in which it holds its services differently from other signs. The church would get cited if its directional signs were up after a limit of 13 hours – the same ordinance allowed political signs to stay up for five months.

In a 9-0 ruling, Supreme Court justices not only ruled that particular distinction was unconstitutional, but also took the much broader view that local governments must have a compelling interest to have different standards for signs. The ruling further codified the long-standing precedent that signs cannot be regulated based on their message.

Signs specifically exempted from regulation under the UDO include A-frame signs, attention-getting devices, banners, blade or feather signs, flags, menu boards, yard signs and wall and window graphics. However, they cannot display off-premises commercial advertising unless the property’s zoning permits it.

The changes approved by the County Board this month came on the heels of a minor set of tweaks to the UDO in January that tightened up the definition of agriculturally exempt structures, created a category for vacation rental dwellings, and set rules for the storage of recreational vehicles.

The County Board ratified the UDO in 2014, ending a four-year process that revised all of county government’s land- and development-related ordinances and merged them into one. The UDO only applies to unincorporated areas, and does not supersede municipal development and land-use ordinances.

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