The City of Toronto is looking to modernize its temporary sign laws as it seeks to grapple with everything from a boom in realtor open-house signs to a proliferation of notices advertising large-scale and infill construction developments.
City staff began public consultation on July 22 on a range of sign issues and will deliver a report with recommendations to council’s planning and housing committee by Sept. 17. The purpose of a review is not just to formulate a crack down, but also to provide clearer guidance on some increasingly common sign uses. For instance, a contractor posting a sign advertising their business on the fence surrounding an ongoing renovation seems like a useful piece of public information, but city rules do not allow such postering even though they are a common sight.
“We recognize through our own enforcement actions around temporary signs, that some of the language or rules are not clear,” said Mark Sraga, director of Toronto’s investigation services department, which oversees parks and waste enforcement, property standards and bylaw enforcement.
When it comes to realtors running wild with open-house signs, “coming soon” placards and other rule-bending billboarding, the problem does not seem to be a lack of information.
“We have some realtors – they play by the rules – and we have some rogue operators that use guerrilla marketing and blitz an area with all these signs,” Sraga said.
City rules say open-house signs have to be taken down by dusk on the same day of an open house, they have to be specific to an address and permissions are needed to post them on private land, city land and some public areas. There are no rules on how many open-house signs may be placed for each property, which is one of the topics under discussion in the city’s consultations.
Plenty of sales representatives and brokers have complaints about open-house signs posted days in advance, or left for days after the fact.
“I do see agents abusing the sign rules all the time,” said Carl Langschmidt, CEO of Property.ca and Condos.ca. “They do leave stuff out over the weekend. I’ve seen agents literally prints the cheapest sign you can imagine … a plastic board, a dollar or two dollars … and just leave these signs all over the city.”
Scott Ingram, a sales representative with Century 21, often names and shames other realtors breaking rules on his Twitter feed.
“I think it comes from my professional background. I’m a chartered accountant – maybe it’s a ‘colouring within the lines’ thing,” Ingram said. “Once I learned the rules, I followed the rules.”
Andrew Ipekian, broker of record for the Ipekian Real Estate Group, said he has made liberal use of open-house signs, but tries to do so within the boundaries of the regulations.
“The reality is nobody wants a tonne of signs all over the place … other than the homeowner. If you’re selling you want as many signs as possible,” Ipekian said. He owns more than 100 signs, not including those of his team members, and on weekends when there are multiple listings he said he sometimes puts out eight or more signs for each listing. He said losing signs is a frustrating part of the business, including times when the city has scooped up his signs, which he agreed does little to deter him.
“The city charges you a [recovery] fee that’s more than the sign itself,” he said. The city fine for recovering a seized sign is about $140, whereas Ipekian can just buy a new sign for about $80.
Sraga, too, has come to realize seizing realtor signs doesn’t do much. “Very few people come to collect their signs,” he said, and after about 30 days the city recycles what it can and the rest goes to landfill. These sign roundups don’t happen all the time, Sraga said. Sometimes it’s only one or two weekends a month and even then it can get dicey. “One realtor – we were seizing their signs – got into a confrontation with our officers, trying to take [the signs] out of the truck,” Sraga said of a 2017 incident when Toronto police were called.
“I do think most agents do comply. The jerks that are pushing it are the same people over and over and there’s no penalty,” said Ingram, who wishes the city could charge escalating fines to make it uneconomic to break the rules.
The sign issue is often also complicated by brokerages that hire contractors to place signs, raising the question of whether the contractor or the agent should pay the fine. The city sometimes adds unpaid fees to property taxes, but even large brokerages often lease their space and don’t pay property taxes directly (and it’s doubly useless against a brokerage not located in the city). Part of the exercise the city is undertaking now is sitting down with its lawyers and working on recommendations to council, which will be the ultimate decider of what to do.
Sraga also issued a warning to sign scofflaws who believe the city lacks the will to enforce its rules: he pointed to his department’s controversial tactic used to shut down unlicensed cannabis dispensaries. “It’s no secret we’ll place very large cement blocks in front of [cannabis] stores that continually defy the rules,” he said. “That’s an example of how we get creative.”
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