MR Management — Volume 1 Issue 1
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Know Your Sign: How Knowing About Outdoor Signs Can Save You Money
Lindsay Garroway, Esq., Cohen Hochman & Allen

By law, nearly all signs in New York City require permits. Most property owners know this much. However, there are dozens of additional rules and regulations that govern various types of signs. Landlords and business owners in the five boroughs are often not familiar with these more specific, technical requirements.

Owners who violate these regulations receive violations with hefty price tags from NYC Department of Buildings. Just one misstep by an unknowing landlord or tenant can cost thousands in violation penalties.

The most expensive violations for signage are issued to outdoor advertising signs. These signs are attached to the exterior of the building or structure and promote a service or product that is not offered within the building or on the property lot.

These types of signs are subject to particularly harsh enforcement practices. To even be permitted to display outdoor advertising signs, an entity must be registered with the City of New York or enter a contract with a registered sign company to operate the location.

A violation of the law for outdoor advertising signs typically carries a minimum penalty of $10,000. And that's just for one violation. It is common practice for the NYC Department of Buildings to cite one sign with several violations simultaneously.

It would not be unusual to see an illegal sign receive five or eight violations in one day, each for various infractions of the Building Code or Zoning Resolution.

The difference between a $10,000 violation and an $800 violation is often minor. For example, let's imagine a woman owns a building in Queens. Her tenant is a restaurant on the ground floor, and there are six residential units in the three higher floors.

The restaurant decides to display its sign on the upper wall of the building to try to draw the attention of potential customers. Since the sign advertises for business located within the building, this is an accessory sign.

If the tenant or owner failed to get the necessary permits or failed to comply with the zoning requirements, a sign violation would cost her $800.

However, if the same woman also owned a dry cleaning business located down the street, and she decided to place a sign promoting that business on her apartment building, the sign would be issued violations for outdoor advertising signage.

While the scenarios are similar, the second sign for the dry cleaners down the street is a more serious violation under the law. Violations for this sign would cost her $10,000 each.

To make the stakes even higher, there is nothing in the law that prevents the City from citing the same violation each day until it is corrected. While it may seem logical to incentivize an owner to remove an illegal sign, a property owner is sometimes not served with notice of the violation until months later. This means that by the time they are served with notice of the violation, the damage is done. They may have already been cited multiple times.

Sign regulation is such a specific niche of NYC property law that many attorneys are not knowledgeable on the subject. Last year, our firm represented a building owner who received outdoor advertising violations for displaying a sign that advertised services of a law firm. When we spoke to the lawyer featured in the sign, he confessed that he didn't realize such a sign was illegal.

I frequently warn owners to be careful what websites they include on text of their sign. Recently, one of our clients was issued outdoor advertising violations when it featured the website for the management company on its sign as a way to allow potential tenants to apply.

A sign that advertises a tenant vacancy in the building is generally not considered advertising, but signs that promote a real estate company website that features multiple locations could be construed as an advertisement for the real estate company.

Enforcement efforts by the City have only increased in recent years, forcing owners and landlords to take notice. Given the enormous price tags carried by these violations, property owners have had to educate themselves on what's legal and what isn't. Being aware of the law is the best way to be protected.

The Department of Buildings provides helpful information about the regulation of signs on its website: gov/html/dob/html/safety/signs.shtml.

Lindsay Garroway, Esq.
Cohen Hochman & Allen
80 Maiden Lane, Suite 507
New York, NY 10038
Tel: 212.566.7081