On Tuesday, October 20th, City Council will consider a freestanding sign standard proposal for the Institutional District (INST) that offers a comprehensive resolution to size, height, and illumination of signs in that District. This proposal was created through a collaborative effort of neighborhood and community organizations and was considered by Planning Commission at the their September 10, 2020 meeting.

A Brief History of Council’s Action:

Members of City Council and the public have expressed a desire to participate in determining appropriate sign requirements in the Institutional District (INST) through Council’s legislative process. This interest began when the newly created Institutional District (INST) was drafted at first without any sign standards. When the public and members of Council raised this issue, the Institutional District (INST) was then given the same standards as Commercial and Industrial Districts by the consultants. It is important to note that there are no Commercial or Industrial uses in the Institutional District and the Institutional District is the only Special Purpose and Overlay District without its own freestanding sign standards.

Prior to the passage of a new zoning ordinance on August 13, 2019, Council was assured that sign standards would be provided for Council’s approval before the new ordinance went into effect. When no action was taken, Council, through a Resolution passed on September 24, 2019, requested that Planning Commission consider and make a recommendation to City Council regarding sign standards in the Institutional District. As 2019 was drawing to a close and without a proposal to consider, Council then issued a 120 Day Moratorium on signs in the Institutional District on December 17, 2019. In Spring of 2020, a proposal was still not produced so Council issued a 90 Day Moratorium on signs in the Institutional District on April 21, 2020.

In an effort to move the legislative process along, Council held a workshop on July 9, 2020, where Council again expressed a continued desire to participate in the legislative process and the need for additional options.

A Comprehensive Approach is Preferable:

The option for a free-standing sign standard in the Institutional District (INST) is a preferable option as it addresses not only the illumination of signs, but the type of signs permitted, and the size of permitted signs. Further, as private offices are allowed in the Institutional District, passing this option is preferable as it closes a potential loop-hole where an office use could be allowed to have commercial or industrial signs which would otherwise not be permitted in the Office District (O). Finally, this option is preferable as it provides appropriate sign standards for all uses in the District while insuring needed sign flexibility for healthcare facilities with an emergency room through a master sign plan.

The Institutional District Isn’t Just for a Campus-Like Setting:

One argument that Council has heard several times is that signs in the Institutional District should not be a concern because the District is limited to an area of 5 contiguous acres and is for large “campus-like settings.” The assumption is that since there are not many properties that could meet this very narrow threshold, Council should not be concerned about future rezonings to the Institutional District. This point was made specifically by Planning Staff in comments and recommendations to the Stakeholder Advisory Committee on April 22, 2019 and to Council many times. However, Section 8.2 of the current zoning ordinance is clear that the Institutional District is to have a minimum size of five contiguous acres but may be composed of lots of various sizes with a minimum lot size of less than half an acre. It’s important to note that when efforts to fully address concerns in the Institutional District were unsuccessful during the zoning ordinance update, the word “contiguous” was added by Council to offer some protection from the sign standards as drafted.

This means that a composition of 20,000 square foot lots, with different owners and therefore not a unified or campus-like setting, may be rezoned to Institutional District so long as the lots meet the contiguous five-acre requirement. The 5-acre argument therefore gives little comfort as our city’s sign standards are based on lots and not area, meaning that each lot, not each 5-acre area, has its own individually allowable signs.

Illumination Isn’t the Only Issue:

Sign standards in the Institutional District allow for internally illuminated signs as well as dramatically different sizes and types of signs which are more appropriate for commercial and industrial uses. Currently, in each lot zoned Institutional District you can have pole signs in addition to monument or column signs. The maximum height of detached signs can be up to 35 feet and 220 square feet in size down to 10 feet tall and 100 square feet in size. After considering that signs are based on lots and not area as discussed above, imagine the potential sign clutter from 10 contiguous half acre lots with at least one 10-foot-tall pole sign that is 100 square feet on each individual lot.

The difference between commercial and industrial signs and non-commercial signs is dramatic when we consider that in the Office District only monument and column signs with a maximum height of 6 feet and a 36 square foot sign area are permitted. Further, there are no permitted internally illuminated signs in the Office District.

Given the uses available in the Institutional District (INST), including broadcasting facility, community center, educational facility, public safety facility, and healthcare facility, it was important to provide more flexibility in the type and size of permitted signs in the District. As such, the proposal is more generous than the Office District (O) but not as generous as the signs allowed in Commercial or Industrial Districts. The proposal allows for signs from 6 feet to 15 feet in height and from 36 square feet to 65 square feet based on the roadway type adjacent to the property. Further, the type of sign is limited to monument and column signs and there is an option allowing healthcare facilities with an emergency room to internally illuminate their signs.

When considering the type, size, and illumination of signs available currently in the Institutional District, it is easy to see why many are concerned and want to see a comprehensive approach to sign standards in the District. Knoxville-Knox County Planning staff selected the current location of Institutional Districts, many of which were formerly Office or even Residential Districts. As described above, a future rezoning of ten contiguous half-acre lots could bring Commercial and Industrial signs outside of those pre-determined sites. Therefore, the time to provide comprehensive sign standards is before any new signs go up and before a rezoning is initiated, because once a sign is constructed it will be with us for a very long time.

Council’s Legislative Process:

In 2015, Council used its legislative process to create the sign ordinance and five years later this Council has through previous comments in the July 9th workshop, support for both moratoriums, and the September 2019 resolution expressed a commitment to take similar action today. Only a freestanding sign standard for the Institutional District, just like the other Special Purpose and Overlay Districts in Article 8 of the current zoning ordinance, can resolve size, type, and illumination of signs in the District. This amendment proposal will be the 4th attempt by Council to address this issue. After all the interest and action taken in this debate, I am glad that Council will now be able to consider an option for comprehensive sign standards in the Institutional District.

3 thoughts on “Institutional Sign Standards and Why It Matters to Neighborhoods

  1. An excellent description of the issue. It is really important to get this right. The Scenic Knoxville proposal deserves a fair review. Carlene Malone

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  2. Thank you, Andrew. Excellent post and gives important information about this new Industrial District. We want Knoxville to get in right re: sensible signage for the District to protect various residential neighborhoods (and to avoid having to re-visit this issue in the future when complaints from residents, etc. start rolling in over large or tall signs in this District)! Thank you for your efforts!

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  3. Very well done. I appreciate your attention to detail and your ability to recognize and clearly express the issues at stake. I hope this proposal is adopted.

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