Better Safe Than Sorry On Setbacks

Spending just a few extra minutes on laying out the placement of you new billboard sign can save you thousands of dollars and lots of anguish down the road – maybe even save your whole sign! There are some common misconceptions out there that can be impossible to fix inexpensively once the billboard sign has been cemented into place. You must understand these issues to avoid getting off to a terrible start in you outdoor advertising career.


Most billboards have lights on them. These huge fixtures stick out several feet from the billboard face. When calculating your side setback from the property line, be sure and include the additional feet for the lights in you calculation. You would not believe how many people forget to add in this measurement. As a result, they build a billboard that overhangs the neighboring property from day one. Of course, when the neighbor finds out, several awful options all come together at one time: he may require you to pay him rent, or he may require you to remove the lights. He may also sue you for past rent for the period you have been overhanging his property. And then there’s the problem that by taking you lights off, you may be in violation of your billboard ad lease as well as you loan agreement. Now, wouldn’t it be easier to take the time to figure out how many feet to add on for the lights on the front end?


Just like the light fixtures, most signs have catwalks. The one that most people forget is the front walk-around catwalk. Look at you engineered drawing – it’s that walk nearest the street. You have got to find out how much additional setback this walk requires and load that into you numbers. Otherwise, you will end up with the same problem shown above, but with one extra terrible wrinkle. Often the front setback relates to right-of-way, and you cannot just pay them off if you get caught. Additionally, like we’re going to cover next, the front setback normally includes power lines, and you will have a disaster if you allow a walk too near the lines – someone might get injured and killed and your screw-up could make you responsible.


Power lines pose an extra risk for calculating setbacks. The first problem is that different types of power lines require different kinds of setbacks. You need to consult with the power company to find out how powerful the lines are and how much setback is needed. You need to also consult with OSHA to see what their requirements are as they may be more stringent than the electric companies’. And make sure that the setback they tell you is from the actual lines and not the center of the pole – that’s a huge difference. I know people who had a worker get electrocuted on their signs, and their businesses were ruined. Don’t do that to yourself.


It may be hard for you to accept, but the property owner doesn’t really have a clue as to where their property lines are. If you don’t want to have a problem later, spend some time to truly find them. Look for some tangible signs like a steel stake, or a power pole or some other type of item that normally goes on the right-of-way. Look for a fence line. Better still, get a copy of the survey and find that property line. If you don’t have a real handle on it, then it is worth the money for a surveyor to find the line for you. Spending $250 to find the line is a lot cheaper than $10,000 to move the sign backward.


Since we are talking about setbacks and construction, and I wanted to remind you empathetically to make sure that you are clear of all underground utilities. If you hit a fiber-optic phone line or a major gas line it can bankrupt you. Call DIG Test or One Call, or whatever the underground locater is for you area, and even then ask around at the city to see if there are any other utility lines that aren’t on the radar.

Another point I would like to make is that a billboard is a big thing, and an extra 5′ of setback is not going to hurt it one bit. I always tack on a few feet of setback even after doing all of my homework, just for the heck of it. This is definitely one time when you are better to be safe than sorry.