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Southern Ontario municipalities cracking down on real estate sign boards
July 26, 2019
Shane Dingman

Across Southern Ontario municipalities are fine tuning bylaws and formulating new enforcement efforts to try to rein in the way temporary signage is proliferating, particularly among builders and realtors.

If you’re looking for a visual metaphor for real estate there’s nothing more iconic than a for sale sign on the front lawn. But in recent years agents have been deploying variations on the old--fashioned for sale sign in ways that slipped past the definitions of what constitutes a legal temporary sign, blanketing sidewalks with open house signs, coming soon signs and even just straight--up mini--billboards for a realtor with no information about a specific listing.

In March, Oakville, Ont., updated its bylaws to allow for more open house signs, rules that included the caveat that if a realtor puts out more than five such signs all the signs will be confiscated. In May, Hamilton updated its sign bylaw establishing a raft of new administrative penalties for different types of signs. On July 4, Mississauga’s rules were updated to allow sold and coming soon signs (the first municipality in the Greater Toronto Area to specifically allow coming soon signs).

Richmond Hill, Ont., was the last municipality out of the 25 where the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) operates that had no regulation allowing open house signs on city lands. The tacit ban did not stop realtors from infesting every corner of the city with signs of all types on weekends. A city staff report identified 100 agents and brokers breaking the rules between 2018 and 2019.

Victoria Zhang, a top selling agent, describes the situation getting worse and worse during the eight years she’s been practising real estate in Richmond Hill. “Compared to four to five years ago, the signs were almost twice to three times as many as before,” she said. “Some realtors pay the fee for a driver who puts out signs for them. Maybe that realtor has only one house in the community [but] you would have a lot of signs … that’s the way they get business.”

On July 9, Richmond Hill decided that since a blanket ban on open house signs on public land was being widely ignored, maybe a legal option for the signs would bring some sanity to the situation.

Ahead of the debate, TREB released an Ipsos Public Affairs poll that found 83 per cent of Richmond Hill residents approved of open house signs, though only 71 per cent wanted the city to change its bylaw and 24 per cent felt “they are an eyesore and should not be allowed” and 28 per cent felt they are “not useful.”

“I’ve been a councillor for six years and I’ve had complaints about open house signs on and off for much of that time. Clearly an outright ban wasn’t getting us anywhere,” said Richmond Hill city councilor David West, who sponsored the amendments to the sign bylaw. “The public is concerned about having too many signs polluting the landscape. I was hoping it could solve itself -- really it is an industry issue -- but at the end of the day, there wasn’t a solution to it.”

Mr. West tried to work with TREB on the issue. The Toronto board has rules around sign conduct and a professional standards division that Von Palmer, chief government and communications officer, referred to as a form of “parallel enforcement.” But TREB’s policies have gaps for scofflaws to slip through.

Despite receiving complaints from its own realtors -- “I know that we’ve had a few complaints, I know they have opened up files and looked into that,” Mr. Palmer said he couldn’t think of an example where any sanctions had been imposed. TREB is trying to educate its members about signage rules, but, as for enforcement, “the preference is for complaints to go to city hall.” But Mr. Palmer said when TREB gets a complaint on its tip-line, the policy is not to forward the information to the relevant municipality. “We don’t report to the city,” he said.

The inability of TREB to wrangle its own members is what pushed Mr. West toward a new bylaw that would mirror the language applied in nearby Vaughan, Ont. But he worries that amendments made by other councillors will fatally undermine the rules. The bylaw passed by Richmond Hill council allows agents to post open house signs, but they must be stripped of all personal or brokerage branding and include only basic directional information.

Mr. Palmer says the law contradicts provincial legislation. “Realtors are regulated by the provincial Real Estate and Business Brokers’ Act, 2002, which explicitly requires them to include identification information on all of their advertisements, including signs," he said in a statement. "Moving forward, TREB is seeking advice in this regard, but we are concerned about the potential for the new bylaw to force our members to contravene their provincial regulatory obligations. Restricting identification information on open house signs will make it much more difficult for municipal bylaw enforcement staff to identify the owner of a sign, and thereby prosecute offenders who may infringe on other bylaw requirements such as size or number of signs.”