As part of our client services at Ortwein Sign, we help apply for and acquire sign permits for many of our clients. This has given us expertise over the years in this element of the sign fabrication and installation process, and we’d like to share the how and why behind the sign permit process.

(Since sign codes and regulations vary from district to district, we will speak generally to our experiences unless we are citing a specific example in which case we will mention the exact location as a reference.)

Why Are Signs Permitted in the First Place?

Over the years, municipal districts have codified standards for businesses including the size, location, and type of signage allowed. These codes and regulations are usually implemented to maintain a standard look or feel for a community, city, or business district. Signage ordinances have become increasingly prevalent, and as such more communities fall under these types of rules. As these rules are implemented at the local level, there may be wide distinctions in the verbiage and enforcement of the sign codes.


Sign size is one of the most frequently codified elements in signage code. Years ago one could put up a sign on their business of nearly any size and dimension. That led to a lot of variability when looking at businesses and especially city skylines and streets. Therefore when cities wanted to add consistency to the look and feel of their city, sign size regulations were often front and center in the discussions.

For example, monument signs have gained favor in some communities over pylon signs as the latter are by their nature quite large.

(Read our post to learn more about the benefits and differences between monument and pylon signs.)

Type of Sign

In addition to the size of a sign, the type of sign also matters with regards to sign permits. Electronic message centers or signs with moving pieces, especially when placed on a roadway, may be considered too distracting for drivers by some municipal leaders.


Often the location of the sign itself may be the biggest point of concern, as a community may allow pylon signs but they may need them to be setback from the road so many feet. In downtown Chattanooga, a municipal district run with Form-Based Codes, there is a rule determining whether a building can have a sign on the roof if it’s over so many stories.

What is the difference between a Sign Permit and an Electrical Sign Permit?

Sign permits

Sign permits may include an electrical component; however, their focus is often more broad especially as not all signs require electrical permits.


Electric permits are often addendums to the sign permit, though sometimes it may be another municipal office that requires electrical permits. Electrical permits are only required for signs that are lit and therefore require power.

Frequent Misconceptions About Sign Permits

As signage experts, we at Ortwein Sign help our clients by handling their sign permits to ensure our clients get the best signs possible in a timely fashion. Oftentimes our clients are unfamiliar with the permitting process, and so we have to shed some light to help clear some misconceptions they may have about what signs they can and cannot have with their business. Here are a few of the most frequent ones we hear.

If that business has a sign like that, I can too right?

Not every sign you see would pass muster in that community today. Many communities have simply “grandfathered” in older signs, which means they are allowed as they are now, but if the sign is modified in any way those same signs may need to be inspected again and would potentially fail the permitting process now.

I Googled sign code in my area, and I think it said I can do this. Is that right?

Sign codes are often complex documents, and while you may have indeed found text saying you’re allowed one type of sign oftentimes there is more text to follow that may add caveats or potentially may seemingly contradict earlier language. Therefore before assuming one-hundred percent that something you read is true in the sign code, be sure to speak to an expert such as our team at Ortwein Sign who will be versed in parsing through the legalize of sign ordinances.

Aren’t Sign Permits Free?

This one is quite a common presumption, but no sign permits are not free. Municipal districts charge for the permits.

What is a Sign Variance?

A sign variance is the term for when a sign is permitted under special circumstances, usually against the standards of the code as it normally is. Such a case may be where a sign is allowed to be slightly larger or perhaps in a different location than signs are usually allowed. Variances often have to be requested in person at a municipal meeting.

Client’s are often excited to hear of the possibility of a sign variance;’ howevever, there are certain caveats one must consider. We break down the main concerns when applying for a sign variance.

Not All Variances Are Approved

First and foremost we have to emphasize that not all variances are approved. So the time and costs to apply for the variance may not indeed be worth the effort, or at least that’s something we want our clients to consider. Each jurisdiction is handled differently and so too is the enforcement, and even if we know a sign type has received a variance in the past it does not mean that it will again for a new client or a new business.

Variances Cost Time and Money

We already alluded to it in our first point, but to apply for a variance costs time and time costs money. So if your sign company takes the time to get the application together, go to the meeting, and argue the case, that will show up on the client’s bill whether the variance is approved or not.

What is Ortwein Sign’s Process for Permitting a Sign?

To help shed light on the sign permitting process, we’ve decided to breakdown the steps below to help inform you on the process and timing for the acquisition of a sign permit.

The Big 3

At Ortwein Sign, we require what we call The Big 3 before starting a job. This includes signed art, signed quote, and a deposit. We’ll also include the cost of the permit application in this process.

Sign Survey

To ensure the sign permit application is as accurate as possible we will conduct a sign survey. When we complete a sign survey. we measure the dimensions of the space where the sign will go, and for the permitting application we pair that with the dimensions of what the sign will be as well when fabricated.

Permit Application

At this point we have the information needed to apply for the permit. As the sign code varies by location so does the application process. Fortunately more and more applications are online; however, some still require the applicant to show up and hand the documents off in person.

Permit Approval

Permit Approval can also vary with some jurisdictions approving permits within 1 to 2 weeks, while larger cities can take anywhere from a couple weeks to a months to approve a sign application. This is another reason why we strongly recommend that businesses partner with a sign company such as Ortwein Sign, as our experience and expertise can help.

If Approved

Yay! Your sign permit has been approved. We are now ready to fabricate your sign.

If Rejected

Do not fret. Your sign may have been rejected, however sometimes the rejection comes with notes and we can work to adjust the sign to fit the guidance provided with the rejection. Regretfully sometimes sign permits are rejected outright with no reason given; however, even so with our expertise we can do our best to package a new sign offering to submit to permitting.