After a Vienna church sued the county last year regarding the use of its electronic sign, the Board of Supervisors was quick to order a review of county sign regulations.
However, in their first discussion of possible changes, board members expressed a reluctance to relax the rules.
“These signs are garish. They are awful,” said Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason). “They are distracting to drivers.”
At issue are the LED displays now being incorporated into signs at businesses, churches and schools around the county.
Current county rules are somewhat vague, but prohibit signs with moving text, according to Zoning Administrator Leslie Johnson. Historically, the county has interpreted that to mean that the text doesn’t change more than twice in 24 hours, she said.
The sign ordinance was last updated about two decades ago.
In July 2012, the Church of the Good Shepherd, on Hunter Mill Road in Vienna, was subject to a county zoning violation after it programmed three messages on its sign in one day.
The church sued the county on free speech grounds, but the case was put on hold after the board rescinded enforcement of the zoning ordinance on signs and ordered the policy review.
While it may not seem like a big deal in the context of the single church sign, Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) asked her colleagues to consider the impact of a series of similar signs at each of the churches along Hunter Mill Road.
“If you’re driving, and you’re just constantly inundated with these signs, it starts to have an impact,” she said.
Jack Reale of the county Zoning Administration Division said the county can regulate several aspects of electronic signs: the location, the amount of movement, the frequency of changes and the brightness of the signs.
For example, he said, Arlington County’s regulations only allow the sign image to change once per minute and prohibit moving and flashing effects. They also limit the brightness of the signs and prohibit moving messages in residential areas.
Chairman Sharon Bulova (D-At large) cited George Mason University’s electronic sign, which was very unpopular with the community when it was installed, as an example of how signs can be adjusted to have less of a visual impact.
“It was the absolute example of what you don’t want to see by the side of the road,” Bulova said. It was bright, active and eye-catching for drivers.
After community complaints, the university took steps to reduce the amount of moving images on the sign and adjusted the brightness.
“People are still not happy with the sign, but at least the measures they took are examples of what you can do to tone it down,” she said.
Reale said county staff will continue to review other jurisdictions’ sign ordinances and will recommend a new policy for Fairfax County later this year.