New Sign Regulations: 
Promise to really junk-up the commercial areas.

The Board of Supervisors has adopted a significant rewrite to its zoning for signs.  The aim is to put in place a policy to allow for content-neutral language.

The overhaul was needed in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said local governments can’t limit signs based on their content or message. In the 2015 case Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., the court ruled that “content-based” regulations do not meet the strict scrutiny test required by the First Amendment to protect free speech.

It is also believed that the new regulations make life so much easier for the Dept. of Code Compliance who has always shown hesitancy when regulating signage.   Unfortunately, the commercial areas are plagued with a constant and cluttering excess of signage that often swallow any beauty in the streetscape. 

Regulating signage, both with visits to cite and then with a follow up inspection does take time.  Fair enough, but not an excuse.  Unfortunately Fairfax County refuses to appoint permanent Code Compliance Officials to the commercial revitalization zones to cite all violations, including signage.  Consequently, the commercial areas are very often junked-up with donation drop boxes, excess signage, un-enclosed dumpsters, litter, dead landscaping, dumping of mattress & furniture, and so much more.   It is impossible to see potential in commercial real estate with a landscape so unsightly.

In spite of honest efforts on the part of many, the current system simply does NOT work.  Why not try a new approach by assigning full time officials from the Dept. of Code Compliance to the revitalization zones to be responsible for all reporting and implementation?  Cost is the only excuse cited and yet the county always seems to find the money for anything that is deemed important.  Citizens must complain, and complain in droves if you want your community cleaned-up.  Clearly, after three decades of establishing the revitalization zones where little to nothing has been built, it must be obvious that actual revitalization will not happen under the current conditions.

While the county retained many of its previous sign polices and regulations, the revamped ordinance includes some new regulations and sign categories in addition to the content-neutral language. The county also suggests that this reorganization of the sign rules makes them more user friendly as part of the county’s overall project to modernize its zoning ordinance, dubbed zMOD.  

Electronic Display Sign Rules

For the first time, the zoning rules explicitly regulate freestanding, electronic display signs like the kinds often seen at schools and churches. The rules address the size for these signs, their brightness and how frequently the text changes on them.

Their display screen would be limited to 50 percent of the total size of the overall sign, whereas today they often make up 100 percent of a sign’s face. The regulations also dictate that the copy on these signs may not change more than once every eight seconds, and the change must be instantaneous without rolling, fading, flashing, varying in brightness or giving the illusion of movement. Digital signs can have white, off-white or yellow backgrounds only, and the display boards must include a photo cell to automatically dim them after sunset.  Many believe that the eight second change is FAR TOO frequent and distracting to drivers but that observation did not prevail. It also provides the look of the Vegas strip rather than a quiet community.

Yard Signs Added as a New Category

Wholesale revisions were made to what zoning rules previously called temporary signs. Now called minor signs, these moveable signs include sandwich-board signs and banners. The new rules also added yard signs as a new category for residential property.

On residential properties, there are no restrictions on the number of yard signs allowed or how long they may be displayed. However, homeowners are limited to posting a maximum of 12 square feet of total yard signage, with no single sign exceeding 4 square feet in area and a height of 4 feet.  Thankfully most Homeowner Association have more restrictive rules. 

Signs on Non-Residential Properties
For non-residential properties, the new regulations also allow minor signs for businesses and non-profits. These regulations differ depending on the type of road on which the property is located. For properties on a major thoroughfare — such as Richmond or Lee highways — up to 32 square feet of minor signage can be displayed on each lot. For all other properties, up to 24 square feet can be displayed. Like yard signs, there are no restrictions on the display time, but there is a limit on the number of freestanding signs – only two per lot with a height of 4 feet. Property owners will be required to regulate which tenant is able to utilize some or part of this 24 square feet as only 24 square feet per lot (or shopping center) is available for use.  It is NOT 24 square feet per tenant.  This is a significant change from the previous ordinance that generally did NOT allow businesses to display temporary signs other than to announce their grand opening. .

The new ordinance also puts in place limits for what are called off-premises commercial signs, like signs pointing the way to open houses. Such signs can only be posted from noon on Friday through noon on Monday and are restricted to the same rules as yard signs.  The question must be asked, “Will anyone monitor these off premises commercial signs?”  Apparently not since so many are displayed until they disintegrate into pulp from weather or blow into the roadways to become undesirable projectiles. 

Prohibited Signs

The new ordinance also identifies several prohibited sign types, most of which were carried over from the old regulations:

  • Moving or windblown signs, such as feather signs (sometimes knows as rooster tail signs due to their shape) or inflatable signs.
  • Signs that have flashing or intermittent lights that do not conform to the regulations for electronic display signs.
  • Roof signs.
  • Any sign that obstructs visibility at a corner or intersection.

For more information or questions about the new zoning rules for signs, contact the Department of Planning and Zoning’s Zoning Administration Division at 703-324-1314, TTY 711, or by email.  If you wish to report an illegal sign go to:

Better still, complain to your supervisor, in fact complain to the entire board of supervisors.  Insist that permanent county enforcement of codes must become a county task and not an unfunded mandate which simply tosses the burden without any authority onto the citizens.  The board can enact the regulations, but without active, county-led enforcement they are nothing more than empty gestures. Regulations enacted but not enforced are nothing more than  an attempt to placate the voters.  The voters must demand more of their elected officials.  

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