County Employee Targets Signs on Struggling Fillmore Street

by ARLnow.com August 12, 2010 at 5:11 am 12,058 133 Comments

The sign police finally caught up with the notorious small business scofflaws of North Fillmore Street yesterday afternoon.

According to Screwtop Wine Bar owner Wendy Buckley, a county zoning employee “randomly” stopped by just before 4:00 p.m. and took her sandwichboard sign.

“This sign cost me over $175!” Buckley wrote in an email shortly after the incident. “I just got a call… telling me he threw it in a dumpster.”

Also gone: the sign for Bakeshop, the cupcake-and-coffee place down the block from Screwtop. See below for the county’s explanation of why the signs were removed.

“I’m a pretty positive and easy going person,” Buckley said. “But with today’s actions I am beginning to wonder what won’t this county do to hurt small businesses?”

Buckley quickly added that the county board has been “great” and are “the only people who ‘get it'” when it comes to the needs of small businesses.

In fact, during July’s three-hour board discussion of sidewalk seating on Fillmore Street, board member Chris Zimmerman emphatically encouraged his county colleagues to be more permissive with signs, especially sandwich board signs. Zimmerman and other board members spoke specifically about using signs to attract more foot traffic to the sleepy portion of North Fillmore Street where Screwtop and Bakeshop reside.

“Each of us on North Fillmore Street has a sandwich board sign to try and attract eyeballs down from Clarendon Boulevard,” Buckley said. “I am always happy to comply with any law, but our little businesses are doing everything we can to survive on this street. I don’t see how our signs, which are out of the way, can hurt anyone.”

Update at 2:15 p.m. — The head of the Arlington County Zoning Office has responded to our story.

Zoning Administrator Melinda Artman says sandwich board signs are prohibited throughout Arlington County. Despite supportive words for the signs at the July board meeting, Artman says board members must take legislative action in order to permit the signs to be placed on county property.

Screwtop was given three warnings about its sign, Artman says. The first was issued on June 10. The last was issued within the past couple weeks, and included a warning citation that the sign was “subject to immediate removal,” according to Artman.

It is a criminal misdemeanor offense to place a sign on public property in Arlington County. Violations are subject to fines up to $2,500. Screwtop has not been fined.

Artman says the county confiscates hundreds of signs per week, but tries to warn business owners first before removing them. 

“Of course we support small business here in Arlington… but the feedback we receive from the community is that sign enforcement is very important to them,” she said.

When a sign is confiscated it’s thrown out, since the zoning office has no storage capacity.

Artman says many businesses, especially in the Ballston area, openly flout the county’s sign regulations. Sign enforcement has become a cat and mouse game; recently inspectors started conducting sign enforcement randomly rather than at set times, because businesses had gotten wise to the inspection schedules. The county now deploys six inspectors on sign enforcement details for three hours each week.

  • Darwin

    We need more Libertarians in this country! This is a perfect example of the abuses of the government against its people.

    • LegalAlien

      How would more librarians help? Unless you mean the sexy ones, then I’m all in favor.

      • LP

        LIBERTARIANS, not librarians. Read.

        • Shawn

          More librarians would help more.

          • Tony

            Can we compromise on sexy libertarians?

          • G. Clifford Prout

            I believe we should allow libertarians to marry if they want to. Down with Prop 8.

        • IReedGud

          I can’t read. Not enough sexy librarians.

          • Thirsty

            The county should give back the $175 sign, fine the business the $2500, and give the money to sexy librarians.

      • Darwin

        You might be on to something here, ARL needs to investigate what the county is doing to attract sexy librarians! It appears as though there is a lot of bi-partisan support!

        • By popular demand, we’re now accepting nominees for the “Arlington’s Sexiest Librarian” contest

  • Steve

    The thing is, Screwtop was in the room when Zimmerman made those comments because it was her situation that got him going on that tangent. She knows the law. Better to let the County process go through than poke at it with a sharp stick and then cry foul again.

  • BrownFlipFlops

    It sounds like an inspector had a bad day, and acted out. Shouldn’t there be some sort of due process before property is seized? A citation sounds like the right way to do this.

  • GK

    She should have had her sign taken and thrown out. The inspector should have taken it inside, told the manager on duty that the sign broke the law (which should be cited) and then fined her or warned her. This was abuse of power at its worst and pissy at its least.

    • GK

      Should have said ‘”…should NOT have had…”

  • charlie

    unfortunately the sign is on County property and they have every right to remove it.
    Now, as is usual, Zimmie was pandering to the crowd. Yet he has been on the County Board for too many years and has DONE NOTHING to allow sandwich boards. Don’t hold your breath. He has done his pandering and that is about it. Seriously, he is on the BOARD he can make it happen. He hasn’t, doesn’t and won’t.
    Until then, just assume that the County wants your tax money, will tell you it was your decision to locate on Fillmore Street, if you go out of business someone else will take your place.
    Oh and the Retail Task Force — go to that meeting in August. There is NOTHING in their report about sandwich signs. Foreboding.

    • Thirsty

      Whether or not the county has the right to remove anything sitting on County property does not mean they should. How about dogs tied to signs, trees, and parking meters whilst their owners pop into a store? Should animal control collect these unattended pets? Bicycles? Baby strollers? Would we really want to live in such a community?

      In the case of the Screwtop sign, there was no question who it belonged to. Proper, and ethical, enforcement would dictate instructing the business to remove the sign themselves. Has this been a repeat violation? Then fine them. I do not read in county code where inspectors may confiscate property.

      What’s next, receive two parking tickets and County Police may impound your car?

      • Judy Morse

        With these tactics, it seems a car could get confiscated at the first violation…

    • Thes

      I was wondering how Picador Charlie was going to figure out how to make Chris Zimmerman the villain in this story. Tip: don’t go into movie writing: your films all end the exact same way.

      When you’re sticking pins in him, please decide whether Chris Zimmerman either secretly controls everything in government or is incapable of getting the government to do anything. It can’t be both at the same time.

    • Good job by Charlie demonstrating why, if any of us were County Board members, we wouldn’t listen to a word Charlie had to say. Don’t do what Charlie wants? YOU DON’T LISTEN TO THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE! And if even if you DO what Charlie wants? PANDERER! Best to just do what you were going to do anyway, comforted that you know Charlie will be pissed off no matter what.

      • charlie

        Oh so much attention on a blustery Thursday morning.
        Thes, please quit your unabashed defending of Zimmie and listen to people.
        I have a HUGE problem with County Board members complaining about how the County does something. There are FIVE County Board members. They generally vote as a block (not sure against what, but it is a block) and generally approve most whatever percolates thru the “Arlington Way.”
        So if Zimmie has a problem with sandwich signs, all I’m asking is that he DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT instead of just complaining. If he can bring an unwanted trolley line to Columbia Pike, certainly he can find a way to allow small businesses to have sandwich boards.
        He is one of FIVE people who set policy in Arlington. That is why he is elected.

        • 22205

          Even more effective than a blog post criticizing the one person who agrees with you is to call or email the County Board referencing Zimmerman’s position on sandwich boards & telling his four colleagues, the *other* elected officials, that you support it and want the change.

          It does take three to tango — and since we’re not in districts, anyone on this thread who’s clearly passionate about sandwich boards can tell every single member that you want them legalized.

          Email CountyBoard(at)ArlingtonVA.us
          Call (703) 228-3130

          Also, note to Scott B: any comment from the County staff on the inspector’s rationale for the actions?

    • I guess if you mention sandwich sings in the Retail Task Force Report then all you have to go on is the fact that the last page is a picture of a sandwich sign. If you are willing to read the report as a general policy report about retail in general and not sandwich signs specifically, you can see the report obviously supports that type of signage in the County.

      “The County can help promote an active streetscape by allowing retailers additional merchandising and/or display space in a temporary zone within the public realm,”

      And also,

      “Retail-Specific Signage. The County’s current signage policies including the Zoning Ordinance, Columbia Pike FBC sector plans and guidelines prohibit many of the types of signs, banners, façades and other forms of advertisement that are essential to operating a business. A review of policies addressing retail signage should include adding appropriate new types to the allowable list, developing a process to distinguish signs from branding elements, granting building owners greater leeway to use signage to market available space and promote new tenants, and balancing the signage needs of retailers with the desire to have (view-obstructing) street trees.”

  • Darwin

    What the hell is the danger these signs pose? Why does every thing you do in this country require permission?

  • Katie

    Good grief Charlie Brown! I agree with BrownFlipFlops.

    I love Screwtop–the menu is great and the staff is knowledgeable and friendly.

  • Katie

    “What’s next, receive two parking tickets and County Police may impound your car?”

    Pretty much.

  • Skeptical

    There’s no excuse for taking/destroying something that cost a business owner a considerable amount of money when a citation will make your point. If your car is parked where the county says it should not be, your first notice of this is a ticket — they don’t immediately tow your car to the junkyard. Was the bar not open at four p.m.? Even if it wasn’t, moving the sign out of the right of way and leaving it with a notice would have been sufficient. Unfortunately, when you give some people a little power to punish, their eyes light up with glee.

    • Thes

      Was this a first offense? Was there any warning on a previous occasion? Will any reporters investigate further?

      • Skeptical

        Isn’t it pitching things a little bit high even to use the word “offense” (technically correct though it may be) about a small, simple, inert but movable sign sitting, if the picture above is accurate, next to a street tree in a position where it could scarcely be a significant obstruction to foot traffic (maybe to a dog who wanted to defile the tree, but is that a problem)?

        If anyone but a county employee had done this with an expensive piece of property, I believe it would be called theft or vandalism. Even a previous warning would be a flimsy excuse. Once again, authorities can ticket or tow your car — but they take it to an impound lot and charge you ransom, they don’t sned it to the chop shop. A little respect would go a long way, unless the county really has the goal of driving people out of business.

        • Thes

          I agree completely. I’m just wondering if anyone is going to look into the matter further. Was the sign actually placed where the photo shows it? Or was it somewhere more bothersome like in the middle of the clearzone? Were there previous incidents involving warnings? Indeed, did perhaps the inspector previously warn that, since this was, perhaps, the 4th or 5th violation, that “next time I’m going to have to confiscate the sign”? This is the sort of thing we expect blogs to bring to our attention but reporters to investigate and present the facts. Frankly I can’t imagine a circumstance where destruction of the sign without a hearing is the right answer, but that’s only one person’s version of events.

          • charlie

            big words being used again “clearzone” anyone know what that is?
            Sure the planners might know what it is but it seems like a word that can be pretty broadly interpreted.

          • Clarendude

            I’m surprised there isn’t a diagram, but there is a definition of Clear Zone in the Pedestrian Element of the MTP on page 13


          • Thes

            Thanks, Clarendondude, that’s an excellent link.

            Also, those reading along without feeling the need to refute my every word will see another link I gave exactly one entry below that provides definitions for many of these terms, specifically in the Clarendon context.

  • Thes

    The Clarendon Sector Plan page 3.24 specifically calls for “retail kiosks” to be allowed in a “cafe zone” such as is depicted in the photograph. Was the sign located in that space when it was taken by county authorities? Or was it in the clear walkway zone where people are supposed to be able to get by unobstructed? We need to find a way to allow these signs to peacefully co-exist. They make the area more interesting and vibrant.


  • Sunny617

    I don’t understand why they don’t allow the signs. The businesses up there are taking a great risk being off the beaten path. As someone who walks by there every day, it’s nice to have new options closer to home and some options that aren’t a chain and that don’t have an hour-long wait. The signs help remind people on Clarendon Blvd that there are more options a block away. Bethesda has signs like this and they’re sidewalk doesn’t look bad. Why can’t we?

  • Stacey

    I bet the bozo that took the sign felt such a power trip tossing it in the trash. Gag! Then he called her to tell her instead of walking in and talking in person? Who else finds it concerning that we have county workers who would do such a thing? While the restautant may have been breaking an ordinance, the decent thing to do would be to walk in and confront the owner/manager with the issue.

  • Hate those signs. Dont know much about N Filmore, but in other places they block the sidewalk and create pedestrian hazards. If its your property and there is room, okay then. But if it is a county sidewalk, yip, your sign has no biz being there.

    Not only is there a safety issue for those using the sidewalk, there is also an aesthetic issue. On Lee Hwy and Glebe Rd, Dominos pizza will litter the entire intersection with those signs. They are all over the place. If you allow signs, you get dominos and subway signs all over the place. Or you regulate signs, keep the sidewalks safer, and tell people they need to put signs on their own property.

    • Clarendude

      This is the other view and probably why the sign ordinance is why it is.


      bArlington, do you really hate this particular sign (Screwtop’s blackboard?) if it is place in the public space, but between the tree-pit out of the clear zone ? If so then we disagree, but if you are concerned about an “anything goes” policy on signs then we probably agree. It is near impossible to regulate aesthetics though so I think some mechanism has to be devised first.

      • MB

        Yeah, I don’t see any issue with Screwtop’s board – it’s a wide sidewalk, there’s relatively little traffic, etc. (I find the “I am beginning to wonder what won’t this county do to hurt small businesses?” dramatics eye-rollingly stupid, though.)

        Where I’m more in line with bArlington’s thinking, though, is Clarendon Blvd – the very last thing the stretch containing Mexicali Blues, RiRa, etc., needs is more obstacles on the sidewalk. Outdoor dining and busy sidewalks are great – but with it usually getting narrowed down to two people wide there, sidewalk signs shouldn’t be allowed in (there).

      • Agreed. Regulating aesthetics is difficult. That is why it is usually an on or off switch. Do you allow billboards: yes / no. Do you allow murals: yes / no. Do you allow commercial signs on roadways (real estate signs: yes / no (I think the rule is yes on the weekends but they must be taken down by monday). So same with sandwich / commercial signs on sidewalks. You dont get to say that you like one store and you dislike another. Either yes to the signs or no. If you say yes to Screwtop, you are saying yes to Dominos and Subway and every other store that will use them.

        • Clarendude

          That’s why I suggest somewhere else that maybe a way to impose order but allow some creativity and interest is to allow each store to have a single, specific model of a black 4′ by 2′ chalkboard a-frame sign that you could draw on with any color of chalk you want. If McDonalds wants to draw Ronald the clown on it and advertise their McKiddie Meal then go for it.

    • Sunny

      I dislike sandwich signs, a term I just learned today, because they make it harder for people to walk, push stollers, or otherwise move easily on the sidewalk. I didn’t know the county had a policy or law against them, but I am glad they do. Signs on buildings are fine, but not in the public walking area. Businesses off the beaten path may need more signs or better signs, and I support increasing the signs, just not on the sidewalk. I’m tired of having to feel sorry for businesses that fail fully investigate the operating environment before opening. I don’t want to be a test case for a new business owner. I want a business to research and understand the rules instead of blaming everyone else for their alleged hardships and failures. If you can’t make a profit, renegotiate your rent with your landlord. If you can’t attract customers, re-evalutate your marketing. But don’t blame everyone else.

      • Adam

        Exaggerate much? EXPLAIN how the sandwich board pictured makes you unable to walk on the sidewalk. Were you going to walk yourself or your stroller into a tree?

        • Oh that’s easy. Most sidewalks in Arlington are narrow. Even in Clarendon with the sidewalk cafes, the available sidewalk area for pedestrians is narrow. Place a sign there and you can block most of the usable sidewalk. As indicated, this can be a problem for strollers, wheelchairs, bikes, people carrying packages.

          In some places, where roads have been widened, the sidewalks can be very narrow. On Lee Hwy in Cherry Dale, there is a sidewalk that is only a few feet wide with light poles, street signs, etc. There is a hair salon that regularly places its sandwich sign out on the sidewalk – and the sidewalk becomes impassible.

          ArldotNow – have the zoning folk provide one more piece of info – who do we contact when there is a problem with signs blocking sidewalks.

    • ClizzleDizzleNative

      All this talk about signage and how it shouldnt be on public property. Then what about restaurant PATIOS? They’re all on this public sidewalk. The difference is there is a series of hoops a restaurant owner can jump through to get a legal patio but none for signage.

      Screwtop has a patio on the other side of that treepit (not shown, must be an older picture). So why can’t we as a county have a legal process to obtain signage like sandwichboards/barbershop signs/etc… ?

  • YTK

    What’s wrong with those signs? What is this — STALAG Arlington??? THOSE SIGNS WERE in GOOD TASTE — and they were PROMOTING a business! Whatsamatta Arlington– you don’t want any more business revenue???

    Go to New York- Phila, Baltimore– signs like those are all over the place — and ALSO in good taste. They are PART OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD!!

    Get a LIFE Arlington!!!

    That trash-happy Arlington County Employee should be dumped.

  • Greg

    They should allow signs there. I can see in some areas, like along Wilson and Clarendon Blvds., it could get out of control, but not on Fillmore.

    Also, I’m surprised it’s legal for the County to destroy someone’s property without following a formal procedure. This clearly wasn’t an abandoned sign left on County property. It was outside the store. Unless this is somehow authorized, the County should probably pay for that sign.

  • Penrose resident

    The Penrose neighborhood had 5 “meeting tonight” signs taken and thrown in a dumpster a few years ago by a county employee and the staff would not tell where the dumpster was. They were in violation of the code, but there was not an ordinance for neighborhood meeting signs. Now there are regulations for the neighborhood groups to post temporary signs thanks to the outcry and the neighborhood conservation staff. It was mean spirited of the County staff to dump them rather than issue a warning. And, it was expensive to have more signs made. I feel sorry for the business owner. I hope the County Board members read ArlNow.com. What makes Old Town Alexandria and Del Ray more attractive to small businesses? Maybe Arlington needs to take a look.

  • Let’s Be Free

    If don’t have any problem with chalk boards but if commercial restaraunts want to occupy public property for private purposes they should pay a fee — $50 a month which is just over a buck a day would be suitable for a sandwich board. Outdoor seating on public sidewalks should also incur a charge — $100 a month per table would be a good starting point. And those ZIP cars ought to pay fees for their dedicated parking on streets — $300 a month for starters. Cart vendors occupying public space should pony up say $1,000 a month. Taking constraints off use but requiring payments for exclusive commercial use of valuable public space is the right policy — it’s gets the debate out of the political favoritism game.

  • Bob

    Fortunately, this is great publicity for Screwtop and all the other new businesses on that block.

  • To all —- the sign was not placed in a pedestrian pathway. It was placed next to the tree(light pole) as the photo shows. Will not having the sign put me out of business? (no). But, I just wanted to show people that we were open for lunch during the day. It’s kind of hard to tell who’s open without the signs out. All the businesses along this street made it a point to buy matching signs so they wouldn’t look tacky. My question is…who do these signs hurt? Why is it wrong to have them if they aren’t blocking walkers?

    • Katie

      Wendy, who was the county worker who chucked your sign and then called to gloat? Name and shame.

    • Clarendude

      In my opinion, your sign is beautiful. Colorful, yet subtle; professional, yet crafted by hand.

      Take a look at the link I posted up the thread a ways. That is what we want to avoid. Actually in viewing your sign, one way to exert some control is to specify (say just for the clarendon retail district) that a standard chalkboard sign is allowed (use yours as the model), and then you can put whatever you want on it (in chalk). That avoids the fear of the completely aesthetically challenged putting up signs that look like those in the link. And, of course the sign can’t block the sidewalk.

    • Brian

      I would love to know who or what office the county appoints to do these sort of egregious duties. Seriously, someone post an email address or contact form for people to complain. Arlington County has crossed a line and there are lots of community supporters that would speak up (online at least) in your favor.

      The only way to get anything done is to badger county officials. It’s not ideal, but let’s face it, elected officials are politicians, not public servants of the great good. It’s unfortunate…

      • Thes

        Here is some contact information:

        These are the people who make the law and policy, but do not hire and fire staff:

        Jay Fisette, chair, County Board: [email protected] 703-228-3130
        Barbara Favola, County Board member: [email protected] 703-228-3130
        Mary Hynes, County Board member: [email protected] 703-228-3130
        Water Tejada, County Board member: [email protected] 703-228-3130
        Chris Zimmerman, County Board member: [email protected] 703-228-3130

        All Board members (without accountability to any particular one) [email protected] 703-228-3130

        The official with hiring and firing power is the County Manager, Michael Brown:

        [email protected] 703-228-3120

        Below that, it the org chart tends to get complicated.

    • charlie

      Wendy, just to be certain, i love your sign and your business. and i think it is all a mess.

  • ctbeachbm

    I would reserve judgement until I heard the county workers side of the story. Perhaps this shop owner has been warned numerous times to remove the sign? I have to agree with bArlington. One persons classy sign is another ones annoyance. If you allow one business to put out “classy” signs then how do you prevent the cheap plastic signs from Subway or Dominos?

    • SD

      I can’t think of a single situation which would warrant throwing the sign in the trash.

    • Skeptical

      Unless we are married to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, I would think there could be a fairly simple regulatory work-around to prevent our being swamped in tacky mass produced signs.

      Signs could be permitted with certain conditions — I can think of some options likely to produce the desired result:

      –capable of being changed/updated, e.g. the chalkboard sign pictured above, or whiteboard (I think this makes sense for businesses whose offerings change often)
      –publicizing an independent business, that is, no chains (small businesses get other breaks, this should not be a difficult exception to uphold). I think LBF’s idea of a fee for using public space is fair though a new business or one paying taxes on a low gross could decently be exempted.
      –made of permanent/solid materials, hence, will not weather or break down, blow away or flap around
      –and, certainly, out of the center of sidewalks and crossing areas; perhaps only on secondary streets that are zoned for business.

      If Arlington wants to have “urban villages” a few concessions are in order. I, for one, enjoy passing restaurants that post their daily dishes and specials out front; it’s a lot simpler than going in and looking at a menu to decide if I really want to eat there.

  • At least give me my sign back so I can use it in another location some day. (perhaps a friendlier Fairfax County?) 🙂

    Katie, I emailed the board members with the names of the 2 employees that participated in the theft and the phone call shortly thereafter. All I can hope is that some sort of action will be taken.

    • ML

      Ok, you’re aware it’s not really theft, right??

      “Screwtop was given three warnings about its sign, Artman says. The first was issued on June 10. The last was issued within the past couple weeks, and included a warning citation that the sign was “subject to immediate removal,” according to Artman.”

      Fairly sure what with all those warnings you got, and your complete disregard for them, they can remove your sign.

      Maybe you SHOULD move to Fairfax…….

      • curly girl


      • speaks my mind. Sidewalks are multi use by multi interests. If you dont own it, you dont get to park a sign there.

  • Screwtop Lover

    Wendy, just wanted to let you know that we support you and your business. We love that you’ve brought your love of wine, great staff, and fantastic selection of wine and food to our neighborhood. We will continue to drink and dine at Screwtop and spread the word to friends and colleagues.

  • We LOVE Screwtop! And in a location as bad as N Fillmore, those sandwich boards HELP pedestrians!
    I see the points of not littering the sidewalk or blocking traffic, but CLEARLY no one should be walking into that tree anyway. Also, its not like N Fillmore is really a high traffic area… hence the NEED for the sign. Hang in there Screwtop!!

  • Bort

    Yet another example of our overbearing and out of touch county government. When will the people of Arlington County shake up the board?

  • YTK

    Let’s ALL get on Facebook and “FRIEND” Screwtop!!
    Then let’s all go there for a big party and wear SIGNS on our backs that say “I love Screwtop!”

  • Resident

    There is no “right” for a non-owner of the sign, whether a citizen or county employee, to destroy it by throwing it in the trash–if that is what happened. Call the police and report this. It should be investigated. If someone is doing this under the color of local law, and if there is more to this than one isolated bad day by one county employee, this may warrant prosecution. If I were the business owner, I would insist upon an apology and restitution, or I would prosecute.

  • buckey09

    Would this be considered stealing under any other circumstance?

  • Frustrated

    Can Arlington County be taken to small claims court for restitution?

  • Thanks so much for all the support guys! I have started an online petition that I hope those of you in support of these signs (as long as they are out of the way of pedestrians walking) will sign. I will bring this up at the next board meeting.


    • Lou

      You’re accusing a county employee of theft and destruction of property in your petition. Is that really the way you want to present this to the Board? Are you filing a report with the police?

    • ML

      Oh, wow, there’s a concept – trying to CHANGE the law, instead of just ignoring it and breaking it?

      Personally, I could care less if businesses around here have signs or not, makes no difference to me. I DO care about having at least a basic regard for the law. If you’re not going to follow the law, that’s your choice, but then don’t bitch & moan when you get caught. I might speed, but it’s not the cops fault if I get a ticket!

      Oh, I’m sorry you have a crappy spot that no one walks by, but I’m pretty sure you chose that location, no one forced you into it.

  • Liz

    I don’t have a problem with the sign or with sidewalk seating. And I have been to Screwtop and very much enjoy it. Flatbread too. What I fear is being lost in this is that these establishments CHOSE to be located on that street and in that building for cheaper rent or for whatever reason. And with those choices come consequences. Following the law is one of them. I am sorry they got screwed by the landlord about the outdoor seating and, no, they do not deserve to have their signs thrown in a dumpster. But they shouldn’t open an establishment and then complain about how the pre-existing regulations or laws are impeding their small business.

  • Penrose resident

    Wendy, you need people walking around with sandwich boards-or maybe that form of advertizing is illegal also. I wonder about those kids with flip boards advertizing apartments and whether that is legal advertizing.

  • Oh dear god. I love Arlington, love living there (Clarendon in particular) but good Lord people need to loosen up. The law has a spirit, and County employees are using discretion every day in their decision to abide by the black letter, and just to take a chill pill when there’s no problem.

    I really don’t care if a mommy pushing a stroller has to swerve just slightly around a tasteful sandwich shop sign, or a suburban type who lives in a condo apartment upstairs would rather live on a sterile residential-only block.

    In fact, those people are truly outvoted by those of us who chose to live in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor for an overall urban environment.

    Seriously, the cranky whiners need to move out to the Dulles Airport area where there are big huge isolated houses and no sandwich signs nearby. I hear there are bargains out there too!

  • MB

    So, to review, the owner of Screwtop appears to have known that the sandwich board sign was illegal and placed it anyway. Then, after a County employee – with authority, but next-to-no sense – enforces the law, the owner claims righteous victimhood and threatens to move to Fairfax? Funny, I’d recently reminded myself to stop by Screwtop soon, but I think I’ll pass on it. No interest in supporting a business that isn’t interested in being a part of this community.

    • ML

      Exactly. It’s illegal, whether people like it or not. If you don’t like it – change the law. But they ignored multiple warnings? Then they deserved what they got! Agree too – will not support their business!

  • The county’s response is so frustrating in that they seem to lump Screwtop’s sign in with the annoying real estate/Verizon/online dating ads that pop up in the median. It would be nice if they used some common sense in their application of the rules.

    • charlie

      sign ordinances must be content neutral under freedom of speech.
      even the political sign ordinance in Arlington is illegal, just no one has challenged it.

    • I agree with Charlie. The absolute last thing you would want the county to do is to evaluate the merit of the sign based on its content. The verizon sign and the dating sign and the screwtop sign must fall under the same rules without regard to content. There must be one rule in order to comport with not having the government censor speech.

  • Lou

    Very interesting information in the Update on this post. I have to say, after reading the county response, that online petition posted by Screwtop is not worth the paper it’s printed on.

  • The point of the petition is not to say BAD Zoning dept. The point is to get the law amended.

    • charlie

      i think it is good to do this. the retail task force has been in place for 2-3 years. previous ones never resulted in any change. and as is pointed out, this one only says sandwich signs should be “studied”. I thought a task force would lay out things to DO as opposed to just identify things for further Study.
      You should take your petition to the County Board and ask for action NOW.

    • 22205

      Wendy, if the purpose of your petition is not to attack the Bad Zoning Department – and is to get the law amended – it probably shouldn’t lead with statements like, “[S]andwich board signs were stolen from 2 small businesses and destroyed by an Arlington County employee.”

      I support legalizing sandwich boards that are placed clear of the pedestrian path, but I will not sign nor promote that petition.

      As a strong supporter of small businesses who wants to see you succeed, your instincts and approach are really hurting your cause.

      Don’t ignore lawfully-issued warnings and citations. Do work constructively for change.

      Don’t act like a victim every time you learn that there are rules that apply to your professional business. Do find supporters of fresh ideas and perspectives that benefit you and enhance your community.

      Don’t leave out the inconvenient parts of the truth of your situation. Do be honest with the very well-informed people who live in Arlington, and make the meritorious case.

      A lot of people would seem to support sandwich boards that don’t interfere with the ability of people to pass along the sidewalk. There doesn’t need to be a government conspiracy against you to rally them…

      • arlvatom

        Good reply. She should also change the name to Whinebar!

  • alisonB

    That sign was not supposed to be there. It is litter on a public sidewalk. Glad it is gone. Where’s the citation for littering?

    I hate to be harsh, but this block seems full of crybabies who have found a sympathetic blog to complain to. Fine, but don’t make it seem like you’re a victim of the county while failing to present all the facts.

    It is not a business owner’s right to declare that the sign was of no harm or danger to anyone and should be allowed. Why not work through the established channels to present your case reasonably?

    In the end, this is much better publicity for your than any sign, so I’d say your $175 was well spent. Now please be quiet and follow the rules.

    • SD

      “Please be quiet and follow the rules?” Right, let’s never stand up for what we believe in. Let’s never try to invoke change.

  • fatkidspecial

    “Sign enforcement has become a cat and mouse game; recently inspectors started conducting sign enforcement randomly rather than at set times, because businesses had gotten wise to the inspection schedules. The county now deploys six inspectors on sign enforcement details for three hours each week.”

    18 (hours spent per week) * 52 (w/y) * $40 (reasonable assumption of hourly cost per FTE) = $37,440/year to keep arlington safe from Sandwich Boards.

    This county has no concept of responsible government.

    • Lou

      But hey, if they confiscate 15 a year, they’ve paid for the enforcement with the fines. If enough businesses are willing to flaunt the regulation, they could maybe turn this into a profitable venture.

  • What about every time there is an election and all those signs pop up saying vote for this person. Is that the same thing? Because those are incredibly annoying as opposed to these businesses signs which are simple advertising. I get that a law is a law but this one sounds absurd.

    • charlie

      there are special rules for signs during election periods. again, it isn’t about the content, but rather the time period. during an election period anyone can put up any type of sign as long as it meets the special regulations around election time (which by themselves are simple and complicaated).

  • Sue

    Can we take the money spent on enforcement (18 hrs per week) and spend it on librarians?

    @Wendy – I think you’d get more support for your petition if it was more objective. I support a business’s ability to put up signs like yours but won’t sign something accusing the county of stealing.

    • fatkidspecial

      No we need to shut down cherrydale library and close gulf branch nature center in order to spend more on this urgent threat to public safety. Also the 2,000 sq foot stainless steel/granite kitchen in the emergency operations center hasn’t been renovated in over two years…where are the additional inspectors expected to eat when the spring sign season starts?

    • Katie

      I agree. You don’t want to be seen as another “Amy”–Google Amy’s Baking Company, Scottsdale, Az.

      • Katie

        I meant that to be below Sue’s comment.

        But fatkid has it right too.

        • JR

          fat kid hasn’t been right since he was skinny.

          • fatkidspecial

            oh JR, you little troll… i know you’re upset because you keep getting PWNED whenever you spew your racist, hateful and trollish comments.

          • JR

            @fatkid… wow – dude, that’s offensive and racist, and actually outrageous and inappropriate for a blog. I talk truth and facts. you’re the only one that speaks hate… calling people names.

  • Suburban Not Urban

    These kinds of rules and regulations are necessary when you have the kind of “build to sidewalk” high density development that this county board promotes. And this kind of over regulation will continue to get worse as they are constantly fighting fires from the friction of many living units in a small space. Furthermore they continue to push this(ignore all resident concerns) as the single best development mode with projects like EFC, Columbia Pike, and Crystal City re-planning.

    • Clarendude

      It’s true that the Urban, “build to the sidewalk” approach fosters a better environment for walking about and interacting with other people, businesses and buildings on a more personal level so more conflicts are likely to arise needing some management.

      The Sub-Urban model of traffic sewers for streets bounded by ditches and juniper bushes that nobody would want to walk around and where there is nothng close enough to walk to eliminates the need to regulate sidewalks.

  • TGEoA

    So the county has 6 people spending 3 hours a week enforcing signage issues? 18 expensive man hours for what?!?!?

    If this true the CB should be horsewhipped and vinegar pourted into their wounds.

  • JR

    so the county can enforce this law… but not ask immigration status of a drunk driver after the attorney general gave them the authority?? crazy priorities.

    • bam bam

      Screwtop can hire an illegal immigrant or a legal Irish Shirlingtonian to put up the next illegal sign.

  • Thes

    Here is a link to the County’s sign ordinance:


    And, by the way, here is a link to the law dealing with police seizures of property:


    • TGEoA

      Arlnow’s resident wannabee laywer strikes again — with the something completely pointless. The county sign reich are not police.

      • Thes

        Indeed they are not, TGEoA. But for those of us capable of understanding the analogy section of the SATs, we can read it and *compare* the police requirements to the policy Arlington zoning officers apparently follow, and ask why it’s different, or if it should be different. Or we can just froth at the need to criticize other posters without providing any useful information ourselves.


  • Confused

    The county can allocated 6 employees, 3 hrs per week to the huge signage problem, but cannot afford to keep the Planetarium open? Priorities…

    • AllenB

      Your name is appropriate.

      The County government is in charge of signage, while the school board, entirely separate, decides on their own funding priorities.

      • JR

        which is a problem in itself…. we should scrap the revenue funding agreement. such a stupid idea.

        • JR

          sorry – revenue sharing agreement.

  • Greg

    I don’t get this 6 employees, 3 hrs. per week thing. Is this just an allocation for budget purposes? Why not just assign areas of the County to staff and let them generally patrol for zoning violations? If it’s not your 3 hours do you just walk past a sandwich board sign and say, “Too bad, I’m on overgrown shrub duty today! I’ll get you next time!”

  • Let’s Be Free

    Like I say, charge for the right to place signs on public property, then it becomes a revenue generator instead of a cost center — something like one sign in front on a business positioned on a tree basin or otherwise not to interfere with pedestrian walkway. Similar principle is used for those blue and white gas/food/lodging signs on the interstates. Simple.

  • Southside_Native

    They should try a work-around like street stickers or street tags that they can customize and adhere to the sidewalk outside the stores. That way they can advertise but it does not obstruct the walkway.

  • MC

    I like Screwtop and am very sympathetic to their situation. The County should be encouraging foot traffic to Fillmore street, and sidewalk signs help people discover what’s available on side streets. It is well accepted that signage rules are overly restrictive, and stifle commercial vitality.

    I do believe the county has a right to impose some regulations. A sandwich board sign might not be as ideal as one with a heavy base and springs that will bend with heavy wind, instead of potentially being blown by it. Unfortunately, overly restrictive rules means there is no distinction between more and less ideal solutions, and untenable rules tend to get broken.

    Sadly, it feels like this incident, and the “health inspections” at the Court House farmers market a couple months ago, are cases of County employees trying to make a point at the expense of exercising common sense. We have a local government that’s supposed to responsive to community needs, and to a large extent they are, but there to also many cases like this were County employees seem to have their own agenda, rather than reflect what people really are concerned about. The large number of comments here shows that residents won’t tolerate arbitrary actions.

    My advice to County staff is to read Jane Jacobs, the legendary advocate of vital urban areas, and think about reforming County codes, instead of provoking community outrage.

  • Let’s Be Free

    I find myself wondering whether anyone here has ever read or heard of the First Amendent? The government can’t approve signs that it likes and disapprove signs that it doesn’t like, pure and simple. And it can’t stand in to approve signs you like and not others. If signs are allowed at will for the Screwtops of this world then be prepared for an onslaughts of signs that aren’t so cute and cozy.

  • charlie

    TGEoA wins with the most appropriate link EVER.

  • Alex

    As someone who uses a sandwich board to promote their historic house museum in Old Town Alexandria, I can say they make a HUGE difference. When we forget to put it out, we see a huge decrease in walk-in business. We couldn’t live without our sandwich board sign! Arlington should consider what Alexandria does, by having ACVA sponsored signs that include several restaurants at key intersections.

  • HotBooksWarmBread

    I think the real question here ought to be, Wendy, do you allow sexy librarians in your establishment?
    Do you have any plans for a sexy librarian special?

  • Katie

    From an environmental standpoint, it pisses me off that “hundreds of signs” are ending up in landfill.

    • Thes

      Take a look at the link I gave above about how the police are required to handle confiscated property. Why shouldn’t we expect something similar for the code enforcers?

  • Resident

    If the update in this story is accurate–that the county’s zoning office is confiscating signs and then destroying them because the office “has no storage capacity,” someone from the County needs to put a stop to this before this issue escalates. Legal counsel needs to contact the zoning office and nip this before it becomes a costly legal mess. A government actor cannot confiscate and then, without any level of due process, destroy property. That will not hold up in any court, and the county will be liable. The summary in this blog post of the zoning office’s position, that they are apparently willing to say on the record, is amazing.

    If someone from county management or counsel reads this blog, he or she should fix this obvious mistake going forward.

    • charlie

      if someone put a sign on your property for McDonalds, would you leave it there? Would you remove it and store it for them to retrieve it? No, neither would I.
      The County needs to protect its property. This person was told to not put the sign out and then continue to do so. The County has every right to take it.
      If you park your car on the street without property registration/inspection/useless tax decal, the County gives you a ticket. If you don’t resolve the problem and keep doing it, the County takes your car. They eventually sell it if you don’t pay your tickets.

      • Captain Obvious

        Resident, I think you misunderstand what “due process” is. Her property was trespassing on County property. She was warned multiple times and continued to trespass. It’s really no different than if you left your bike in my yard–I’d absolutely be within my rights to throw it out.

  • Resident

    Captain obvious and Charlie, the difference, as a legal matter, is that you, as a property owner, aren’t bound to give your fellow citizens due process. You can if you would like, but you don’t have to. (There may be other legal concepts beyond due process, however, that would assign liability to the property owner for what you are describing.) The government, however, is bound by due process. A county employee who knowingly destroys personal property without providing any process for retrieving it not only violates the right to due process, but runs the risk of personal liability in the process. A county government that fails to adequately supervise the employee and allows a pattern of due process violations to occur similarly risks liability. Local government cannot deny due process under color of state law. This is not a close issue. That is why police departments at least provide some process to retrieve confiscated property. Once legal counsel sees what the Zoning Office is up to, this will be stopped and corrected.

    • charlie

      I am not an attorney so I won’t pretend to be one.
      VDOT has a long standing policy of removing signs from public roads. And over the last few years private citizens have gotten in trouble for removing private signs from the public roads. Somehow VDOT (and one would assume Arlington) has some sort of rights to remove signs from their property.
      Most of this “right”, whatever it may be, comes from the enforcement of code and zoning for public health and good. Signs on roadways diminish sight lines and cause distractions to drivers — thus there is a public benefit to the County being able to remove the signs. Destroying them might be another matter but it isn’t as if the Verizon Store is going to pay a “fee” to get their sign back.
      So I don’t know if it would stand up to a legal challenge or not but I would venture to say that the County does indeed have the right to remove things from the public right of way under the guidelines of maintaining public safety and health.
      I can assure you that if there is a car accident caused by high grass or illegal signs that the County chose to not remove, that this would make them at risk for legal action even more so.

  • Stefan Sittig

    I live on Fillmore.

    Why not this solution: Instead of sandwich board signage (which clearly makes some people irate–not me–I don’t mind them), why not allow each business on the side streets to Clarendon to place instead a “hanging sign” that could come out from the top of the bldg where the business is located and hang down, high enough so anyone/thing under 8 ft from the ground would not be affected by it.

    Sidewalk remains clear, and business still get the eye catching advertisement space.

    That’s my 2 c as a Fillmore St. resident.

    • Big’Un

      I am 8 feet tall and it’s just this sort of short-minded sizist thinking that’s driving our community apart.

    • charlie

      that would make too much sense. i’m sure Zimmie’s lap dog will point out how the CLarendon Sector Plan rules hanging signs too. bring it on.
      Just to be sure, despite my pointing out why the sign is wrong, i think they bring character and vitality to a street. these horribly designed retail storefronts couldn’t attract attention on their own.

  • E

    Come on. First the American Flatbread seating issue, now signs, next they’ll be citing Bakeshop for making the public streets smell of sweetness. Don’t these people have something better to do?

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