On July 21, 2015, The City of Knoxville approved sweeping and comprehensive amendments to its sign ordinance.

Part of the stated purpose of the amended ordinance is to “avoid visual clutter that may be harmful” and to “provide clear and objective sign standards.” This ordinance radically reduces the height and sizes of signs for business within the City of Knoxville. Central to this new ordinance are provisions setting forth when a pre-existing, non-conforming signs must be reconstructed in accordance with the more restrictive standards of the amended ordinance and when existing signs are considered abandoned and must be removed. In short, a sign that complies with the ordinance is considered abandoned if its use has not been in use for 120 days. A “non-conforming sign” (i.e. a sign that was properly constructed under the prior ordinance), is considered abandoned after 60 days of non-use. Moreover, if the use of the property served by the on-site sign “changes” or expands its existing operations, as these terms are defined by the ordinance, then the sign must be brought into compliance with new ordinance.

How effective these provisions of the ordinance will be in making existing business with current non-conforming signs comply with the new sign requirements remain to be seen; however, business and property owners may assert that the ordinance is in conflict with the Tennessee’s “grandfather statute” because the provisions in the ordinance on abandonment, change of use and the expansion of a pre-existing non-conforming use are clearly more restrictive than the State law protections of Tenn. Code Ann. § 13-7-208. State law defines abandonment of a grandfathered use as the non-operation of a business for 30 months. Additionally, State law allows for the expansion and rebuilding of existing businesses and industries without losing its grandfathered status. The new ordinance, on the other hand, appears to require a pre-exiting, non-conforming sign to be brought into compliance when an existing business expands its operations on site.

Business and property owners who are told their existing signs must be torn down and brought into compliance with this new statute should seek the advice of legal counsel prior to capitulating to the demands of the City Codes Enforcement officials. These business just might be entitled to the protections of State law even if they are not in compliance with the City’s new sign ordinance.

Benjamin Mullins practices in the areas of general construction litigation, business litigation, zoning and land use law. Ben regularly represents developers involving litigation with municipalities in zoning and codes enforcement. If you have any questions, feel free to contact him.