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County Releases Draft of New Sign Regulations

by ARLnow.com August 24, 2011 at 1:30 pm 3,386 32 Comments

(Updated at 3:15 p.m.) Arlington County has released a preliminary draft of its new sign regulations.

After holding sign workshops and promising more business-friendly regulations, the county has come up with a long list of changes to the existing ordinance. The changes are designed to “make the [sign] ordinance earlier to understand and use, and easier to administer and enforce,” while incorporating “best practices in sign regulation.”

Among the proposed changes, the county would allow sandwich board — or A-frame — signs on sidewalks, in direct contrast to the current ban on such signs, which are popular with shop owners in other urban areas. Sandwich board signs would be permitted so long as it doesn’t reduce the clear sidewalk width below six feet. Staff notes that “consideration is also being given to alternatives in areas where a six-foot clear width is not possible.”

Restaurants might be more willing to use branded umbrellas on their outdoor patios under the proposed regulations. Wording on umbrellas would not count toward a business’ overall sign allowance if the draft regulations are adopted.

Additionally, certain signs would be permitted in the so-called public right-of-way. Signs from non-profit groups — like the Boy and Girl Scouts or various civic groups — would be allowed. Currently, only political signs and real estate signs are allowed on public property (like roadway medians) and only under certain conditions. Staff is still considering whether to allow commercial signs.

Another big change is the proposal that new sign permits be considered by county staff without County Board approval. Currently, many businesses have to go through an expensive “comprehensive sign plan” process and a County Board vote to get certain signs approved. Under the new proposal, that process would be offloaded to county staff, who would have the power to approve such signs on an administrative level, under clearly defined standards.

County staff is also considering whether to recommend a change in the definition of what makes something a sign. That could potentially be significant for businesses like Wag More Dogs, which has been engaged in a legal battle with the county over whether its wall mural constitutes a sign.

The county’s Zoning Committee will be holding a public forum on Tuesday, Sept. 13 to discuss the sign recommendations. The meeting will be held at the Washington-Lee High School cafeteria from 7:00 to 9:30 p.m.

  • Richard Cranium

    Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that – can’t you read the sign?

    • Bluemontsince1961

      That takes me back to my days when I was at Kenmore Jr High (now Middle School).

  • Lou

    I didn’t think they could make it any worse. But they proved me wrong.

  • Rebecca Krafft

    Could it be? These sound like sensible and long overdue improvements.

    • sara

      I agree – sensible improvements, especially with respect to the restriction on non-profit groups. During Girl Scout cookie sales last year, my troop of Brownies was approached by an Arlington police officer, who very kindly asked us to take down the sign we had taped to our folding table, citing Arlington’s regulations. The girls could hold the sign but not tape it to the table to let them be hands free to help customers. We complied, and I know we *should* have known about the restrictions in advance and followed them, but that level of enforcement seemed ridiculous…

      • Aaron

        It’s a phenomenon called anarcho-tyranny. The authorities can’t/won’t do anything about real criminals (bank robbers and criminal aliens for example) so they abuse the innocent who can’t fight back (Girl Scouts selling cookies and the like).

  • Dan

    Well, it has placed the discussion in the existential realm of just what makes a sign a sign and is a blank space just a sign which hasn’t lived up to its potential.

  • huh?

    Who cares? The End of Days is at hand. No need for signage.

    • Harold Camping

      Actually it already ended on May 21

  • Rosslynite
  • Sigh…

    • Bluemontsince1961

      Yep. Keep the plunger handy.

  • CW

    It seems to me like there’s been a lapse in enforcement or an increase in ignorance lately on behalf of the business owners anyhow. I’ve seen quite a proliferation of sandwich boards. Mad Rose has one, I believe Rabbit has one, some other places do as well, all in the past few months.

  • Clarendon Cruiser

    “…it doesn’t reduce the clear sidewalk width below six feet. ”

    Does this include outdoor restaurant seating? Because outside of Lyon Hall and The Cheesecake Factory you cannot walk two people, side by side.

    Lyon Hall has a huge planter in the crosswalk path. Are there huge payoffs being made to the county for this outdoor seating privilage? I’d rather have my sidewalks back.

    Who manages and enforces this?

    • Thes

      Perhaps Advanced Towing could be in charge of removing obstacles to pedestrian passage. I’d favor that…

      • Lee-n-Glebe

        Hey – you might be onto something here, but with respect to campaign signs. Allow a private contractor to bill the county $1 per sign that they pick up after the deadline, which is to be billed back to the campaign.

        Of course this is rife with moral hazard – an unscrupulous company could simply clear the signs out before the removal deadline and hold them until the deadline. So it couldn’t be advanced. And you couldn’t let the citizenry do it for the same reason, the signs wouldn’t stay up for 10 minutes. But if you could find the right company it might actually incentivize the campaigns to be as diligent about sign removal as they are about placement.

  • JustinTrawick

    My name is always on a sign at Iota

  • Arlington citizen

    This is something that Chris Zimmerman is pushing on Arlingtonians. If you don’t like the clutter that the changes will cause, vote for somebody else if he runs for re-election to the County Board.

    The changes include many things to add clutter and distractions for pedestrians and drivers of vehicles to see besides sandwich signs and civic signs. One change would permit any type of business to advertise on County streets and sidewalks. (Only real estate companies can do this now.)

    If a distacted driver or cyclist runs into you while you or the driver/cylist is looking at an advertising sign, you will know who to blame if you have failed to tell the County Board and County staff of your objections to the proposed changes.

    • Richard Cranium

      I sense a new plank for the S.O.S. platform!!

  • Barbin

    The one part of this I really, really don’t like is possibly permitting signs in the public right of way. We have enough signs with real estate for sale signs and “vote for me” signs–that’s plenty enough for me and these have “time up” restrictions–that’s good. Will all this signage be allowed in public parks, too? What a mess that would be. The idea of the sandwich boards, that’s fine–the deal of the day can be highlighted.

    • CW

      I’d be more enthusiastic about this if it were tied to a change in the state statute allowing said signs to publish happy hour specials.

      But didn’t this come about, whether the county wants to acknowledge it or not, as part of their catering to Trader Joe’s? I seem to remember that being part of TJ’s concern – that they couldn’t hawk things on the side of the street or set up displays to bring people into the store.

      That said, I’m all for minimizing obstruction of sidewalks. Down with Pete’s delivery Segway! Down with the park benches in front of Boccato! Down with the free pizza samples in front of Faccia Luna! Ok, the last one can stay.

      Oh, and speaking of sidewalk obstruction- planned parenthood/other advocacy groups – please stop bugging us on the sidewalks where we live. Doing it at work is ok…this is D.C. and people are big into that stuff. Doing it in front of our homes? Creepy.

  • SomeGuy

    I wish the county would address the “public right-of-way” issues on Wilson Blvd between Danville and Garfield Streets. I.e. Ri Ra, Faccia Luna, Boulvard Woodgrill, Boccato, etc. The right-of-ways are so narrow through there– and people so inconsiderate by standing still in the narrow pathway (pizza samples on the only passable part of the sidewalk, seriously??)– that passing through on the street is often the only option.

    • Thes

      The draft outline suggests in such situations that they might allow sidewalk signs to make the passable distance *even smaller*. This is the wrong way to go. Why can’t those signs just be put in front of (or in) the tree pits, or in front of the cafe seating? Don’t the restaurants already chew up enough of the sidewalk?

      • Richard Cranium

        “Restaurant” . . . “Chew” . . . I see what you did there . . .

    • charlie

      each restaurant is unique. Faccia Luna OWNS most of the sidewalk and are letting people walk on it out of courtesy. Lyon Hall is stealing the sidewalk from Arlington citizens. Northside Social is stealing the sidewalk from Arlington citizens AND the street from VDOT.
      it isn’t a fair world.

      • CW

        Can you elaborate? Or provide links. I have always been curious about this – usually when I am b*tching about the crowds blocking the sidewalk at Boccato. How can the county own some sidewalk easements and not others? I mean, back in the day, when the parcels were first drawn up, or when the roads were first built, I’d imagine they either set the parcels X number of feet from the road or obtained Y number of feet of easement for said road (whichever came first). But how can there be a spatially-varying easement width? I’ve never heard of such a thing.

      • SomeGuy

        I’d also like to see some references if you have them, charlie. I’m genuinely curious about your explanation.

        I’d add that the way they (the county?) built up the tree boxes (or whatever you call those things) in front of those restaurants really doesn’t help with congestion either.

        Boccato’s store front is perhaps the worst of all, with a bench inviting people and their children to clog the thru-way. Something about eating a portable frozen treat (vs. the restaurant patio food) seems to make people WANT to stand in the way.

  • JimPB

    Anyone commenting who owns or manages a small business?

    A lot of small businesses are struggling, and they don’t have anything like the amount of money for advertising that some political campaigns have.

    What struggling small businesses need is things that get the attention of potential customers at a low cost. Signage is one. Another is distributing home to home in the immediate area a card or flyer about the business. A restaurant whose kitchen produces an appealing aroma that is then disbursed by a fan and/or nature’s air system can stimulate the appetite and bring customers in (it occasionally brings us in).

    Limit regulations to that with a clear and strong relationship to public health or public safety, and make these as clear and simple as possible.

    • CW

      Are YOU a small business owner? If so, let me give you a bit of advice. If you think that “distributing home to home in the immediate area a card or flyer about the business” is a good idea, I can assure you that every last one of us who gets those stupid cards from the maid services and crappy non-italian-run italian places shoved under our apartment doors in the wee hours thinks otherwise. You know what we call that? “Solicitation”, “trespassing,”, and “creepy” come to mind.

      • Bluemontsince1961

        @CW, you’re not the only one that is tired of all the cards, flyers, etc. from every maid service, “pizza” places, power wash/driveway fixing, storm windows, etc. outfits. I purposely will not patronize any of those places, all they do is add to my junk mail. If I need a particular service, I go to Angie’s list.

    • Sarah

      I own a small business and will be glad to see some of the restrictions changed.

      Some I do believe should remain, such as the size of a sign and it’s placement. I understand that for some people, a large sign that advertises my business might not be appreciated or visually appealing to them regardless of how I see it.

      I feel that a sandwich board should be allowed, and it’s placement should in no way impede the necessary width of a passageway so those in a wheelchair may pass. If it’s off to the side or just out in front of my store, that should be ok. As much as I like trees – I hate to say it, but if you can plant one in the middle of sidewalk that forces people to walk around it, then sticking a sign there should be ok too…

      Signage is important, but if I were to rely on signage to bring people in to my business, then I’m not doing a very good job of marketing my business. It’s just another method to identify the location and maybe advertise some specials – I’d rather the county be a little less onerous about their “comprehensive plans” and not make one area of the county more restrictive than another based on their “plans”.

      I don’t own a restaurant, but I think it’s ridiculous that an arbitrary date is set for restaurants to have outside seating of any kind in some areas, while other areas can have it – we might have beautiful weather in November and people might want to sit outside, but the county won’t allow it. Just my opinion, but that’s just a little odd.

  • G

    So, I’m discouraged to use my cell phone while driving but the city will endorse more signage in the median for me to read? Idiotic.

    As for the small business owners who claim MORE signs are needed, maybe you should invest that money in better personnel to improve the customer service experience or in better quality items or services that you sell. Some of my favorite places spend very little on signage or even other advertising methods. It’s all about reputation for quality and consistency, not who has the tallest sandwich board signs.


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