Board Approves Sign Enforcement Measure

by ARLnow.com January 24, 2011 at 11:07 am 2,300 31 Comments

The county board voted unanimously on Saturday to beef up the county’s ability to go after companies that willfully violate Arlington’s stringent sign ordinance.

A new amendment to the Zoning Ordinance will make it illegal for “a firm, corporation, owner, agent or occupant” to cause or “knowingly” permit signs to be placed in the public right of way. Before the amendment, only individuals could be punished, and only if they were spotted physically placing the sign.

County Manager Barbara Donnellan recommended the amendment to help rein in rogue companies that place signs on weekends or in the middle of the night, when county zoning inspectors are not on the job.

The amendment will not change which signs are prohibited — certain signs, like temporary non-commercial and real estate-related directional signs and political signs during election season, will remain exempt — but it will instead enhance the county’s ability to enforce the ordinance, Donnellan said.

Initially, several board members objected to the possibility that under the amendment, community groups could be held criminally responsible for signs about pot luck dinners, blood drives and the like. They were assured, however, that county staff works with such groups to make sure their signs comply with the law. The biggest commercial violators, staff suggested, would be the primary target of the new enforcement powers.

During consideration of the amendment, County Board Chair Chris Zimmerman expressed frustration with the sign ordinance itself.

“Arlington’s approach to signage overall has been focused in the wrong places,” Zimmerman said. “We are overly restrictive in some areas where I don’t think we should be, and we don’t regulate in some areas where I think we should.”

Specifically, Zimmerman said that businesses in commercial districts should be able to “advertise themselves, right there where they’re doing business and paying taxes.” Shop owners should be able to advertise lunch specials, Zimmerman said, without fear of having the sign confiscated or the business fined.

On the wish list of many business owners are “sandwich board,” which can be easily placed on a sidewalk in front of the business. Sandwich board signs were a particular source of controversy last year, after several were confiscated on struggling Fillmore Street in Clarendon. Although we had previously implied that such signs would be affected by the amendment that passed Saturday, county staff clarified that sandwich board signs are covered under a separate regulation.

Zimmerman, meanwhile, said he expects the process of rewriting the sign ordinance to be complete by the end of the year. He said he hopes the county can take a “common sense, reasonable approach” to regulating signs in the future.

One citizen who spoke before the board’s consideration of the amendment said that citizens should be empowered to remove illegal signs themselves. A board member, speaking for the rest of the body, said that was unlikely to happen, as both Donnellan and County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac have recommended against it.

  • Arlwhenever

    When April comes around I wonder who from the Civitan hierarchy the County will criminally charge. Or will being a FOC make one immune from prosecution?

  • Robert Lauderdale

    Our cousins in Richmond have the right idea:

    Illegal Signs

    Last Updated: 2010-01-12

    Did you know that the City Code gives any person the right to remove illegal signs from the public right-of-way?

    Any sign posted in the city right-of-way, which includes medians, utility poles, or the area between the curb and sidewalk, is illegal under City Code. Anyone convicted of a violation may be fined up to $50 per day, per sign.

    To help get the word out, the Clean City Commission and the Pride in Richmond Task Force co-sponsor the Great City Sign-Off. In just one day, residents removed 5,644 illegal signs.

    Do your part! If you spot an illegal sign, take it down!


  • Parkington

    Glad to see the County dealing with the big issues…

    • Mick Way

      Not saying this is right or wrong but it seems to me that local quality-of-life issues are exactly one of the things they are supposed to be doing.

  • Bluemonter

    I really hope they ammend the sign rules and stream line the sign ordinace. The sign rules are currently restricting to businesses and are a big detriment to small business owners. Wake up board..with the new Tysons development..Arlington wont be the only urban village….We need to attract some of the businesses heading to Fairfax..

    • Tysons

      Tysons will never be an urban village. It’s gross there and always will be.

    • SoCo Resident

      I wouldn’t worry about Tysons being a threat to Arlington. I would worry about signs getting out of control in Arlington. The County Board absolutely surprised me on this one as I thought they would cave in to the business interests. Of course, getting the code enforement officers to enforce this, particularly on builders/developers, is another thing.

  • Aaron

    Don’t worry about their expansive new powers. They promise that they’ll only target big corporate offenders! Yay, everyone hates big commerce!

    When the regulators remember that big corporations make difficult targets due to their ability to defend themselves, and instead go after your favorite independent local place of business, you’ll be shocked by the gap beteween the ACB’s rhetoric today and their actions tomorrow.

  • Jack

    Too bad this doesn’t include Realtor signs.

    • SoCo Resident

      It does include realtor signs larger than the normal “for sale” signs. Open house and realtor signs are fair game! Those big fancy realtor signs advertising the realtor with fancy trim around them are illegal zoning violations. Arlington County code enforement officers drive by them daily and don’t do a thing. Wonder why?

      • Jack

        Enforcement is the easy part. Just call, take there name, and if the Realtor doesnt’ get cited then call out the county employee you contacted to file the complaint. If the county is really in need of revenues they should be citing everyone. I can’t wait to start calling and complaining!

  • Rosslyn

    Pass a vague, overly broad criminal statute and tell the electorate not to worry because the bureaucrats will exercise great judgment? What could possibly go wrong there? It is not like such actions have ever been the source of much strife or turmoil in United States history. Oh, wait. I think Mr. Madison and Mr. Jefferson may have had something to say about this.

    Thanks, County Board, for taking things to a new level by criminalizing signs. Although the bureaucrats have won the day today, we may at least get some good (if expensive) First Amendment litigation out of this, and corresponding lessons taught to Arlington by the Federal judiciary.

    • Bluemont John

      Perfectly said.

    • Suburban Not Urban


    • Arlwhenever


  • Rick

    What happened to being pro-business?

    • Rick

      I stand corrected if sandwich boards are in fact allowed

      • Tater Salad

        Hard to see where sandwich boards are excluded from the statute.

        • Bluemont John

          What about a really large, stiff t-shirt?

  • Tater Salad

    What is the effective date of the new ordinance?

    • Lou

      It’s retroactive to 12 months ago. They’ve already sent out 400 summonses.

      • Tater Salad

        That explains all my mail today.

  • GeorgeOrwell

    another brilliant piece of legislation passed by our brilliant policy makers.

  • MB

    These people need lives!
    If a business was tacky no Arlingtonians would go there anyhow, I think in this case the market would weed out any disgusting signs in the area.

    • mehoo

      Yeah, right. All over America, the free market is weeding out ugly signs.

  • Bluemont John

    Amazing–a small sign with “daily specials” is banned, but table after table of sketchy dudes selling cheap sunglasses and scarves in front of the Metro is OK. Makes perfect sense.

    • Another Brother

      What makes them sketchy? I’m guessing it’s not because they’re more tan than you, is it?

      • Jason S

        I admire your ability to pull the race card from the deck so quickly, it’s easier when the entire deck is the same.

  • MC

    What is especially nutty about this pronouncement is that no one seems to be albe to articulate what the perceived grave public danger of any sign is. Only some signs are bad — if they are commercial, while other signs are okay– if they aren’t.

    It is obvious this legal ruling is nothing more than taste-making by the Board — they find some signs offense to their sensitive eyes, while others feel like they aren’t so offensive. Maybe we should dictate what colors the signs are as well, since no clear public benefit cab be articulated for these rules, and since they remain so vague as they are. No willful use of neon signs, or jail for you!

    The Board appears worried that their silly rules have been mocked, and those who mock them must be punished — otherwise people will laugh at the Board.

  • GeorgeOrwell

    Loudoun Chamber and Loudoun Planning Commissioners just got Loudoun County to rewrite their Sign Ordinance and undo Malina Artman’s errors out there. So why is this chick in this job if a suburban boring sprawling county thinks her rules were too restrictive and just undid it all, only 2 years after she was gone? Watch out.

  • Set the controls

    Does this mean we can say goodbye to those narrow, feather-shaped flags that stand about eight feet high and flap around at the curb, and those twenty-foot tall inflated, cloth guys with arms and hair that inflate and deflate, going up and down? Nothing says car dealership/fast food blight better than those things. I wonder too about signs for yard sales.


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