The Reno City Council followed the planning commission’s lead and approved one of the lowest nighttime brightness levels for digital signs in the nation. But the city code change approved March 13 only applies to drive-through digital signs. All other digital signs in the city are not affected and are among the brightest in the region.

The new law allows drive-through businesses to add or switch their menu boards and other drive through signs to digital, under regulations that are far more restrictive than those for all other businesses such as casinos and car dealerships.

The Reno Planning Commission agreed to turn down the brightness level at night on drive-through digital signs after urging from Scenic Nevada during a public hearing in January. And the commission’s recommendation was sent to the city council, which approved it without comment.

With the right zoning, all drive through businesses were allowed digital signs before but not if they were located within 300 feet of certain scenic corridors like Mt. Rose Highway. Or, if the sign was to be located within 750 feet of a residence, a public hearing and special use permit were required.

Sample digital drive-through sign

The planning commission agreed to nix those rules for drive-through businesses only, but replaced them with more restrictions on sign brightness, size and flashy displays. The digital versions aren’t allowed to face a roadway and video and flashing are prohibited. The new code would limit the sign brightness level at night to the lowest in the Truckee Meadows and one of the lowest in the nation. The sign height would be limited to seven feet and the size to 64 square feet.

The issue surfaced when a McDonald’s restaurant last year asked for digital menu boards for its drive-through location along Mt. Rose Highway. Both the Reno Planning Commission and City Council said no, upholding the code put in place in 2015 to minimize the impact of digital signs on scenic corridors and nearby residents.

But, the council also concluded that the smaller menu boards were not the type of digital sign that would raise community objections and asked the planning commission to find a way to allow digital menu boards where they might be prohibited now.

McDonalds originally asked for 500 nits at night and Scenic Nevada requested 150. A nit means candela per meter square (cd/m2) and refers to the level of luminance coming from the sign. The higher the nit level, the brighter the sign. Right now the Reno limit on all digital signs is a whopping 1,500 nits. Washoe County and Sparks followed many other communities and agreed to the sign industry’s standard request of 350 nits, which we think is still far too bright.

The International Dark Skies Association’s draft guidance says digital signs should not exceed 150 nits at night. Tucson limits brightness at night to 200 nits and the city of Sierra Vista, Arizona (population 43,000) has a brightness limit of 100 nits.

Planning Commissioners asked city staff to monitor the impacts of the lower nighttime limits for drive-through signs in preparation for the overall sign code review expected later this year.

Scenic Nevada is hoping that review will yield much tougher brightness standards on all digital signs to help prevent light pollution and conserve energy as well as reduce driver distractions and stop the nuisance of digital signs shining onto nearby properties.

We think digital signs have a big impact on community character and need to be limited. Sign brightness and constantly flipping ads are the top complaints by residents who oppose digital signs. See the Veridian Group’s “Report on Sign Brightness.”