Concerns Over Sign Rules Changes Continue in Leesburg

More time is needed to scrutinize proposed changes to the town’s sign regulations.

That’s according to Leesburg planning commissioners, who again postponed action on the matter at their Nov. 3 meeting.

The changes designed to bring the town into compliance with a 2015 Supreme Court decision. Last year’s Reed v. Town of Gilbert, AZ, opinion means localities may no longer regulate signs based on their content.

The suit was brought on by a pastor to the Town of Gilbert, when he argued that stricter regulations were placed on signs that displayed political or ideological messages. In the case of the pastor, temporary signs directing residents to church services were called into question. In the high court’s majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the town’s sign “code imposes more stringent restrictions on these signs than it does on signs conveying other messages. We hold that these provisions are content-based regulations of speech that cannot survive strict scrutiny.”

The high court’s action has left a Planning and Zoning Department, already dealing with a heavy workload, to add this to its growing list. The staff has taken much of the last year for its review, in coordination with the Town Attorney’s Office as well as outreach to the Local Government Attorneys Association, which formed a special committee to study how to integrate the ruling into revised sign rules for localities. A main takeaway from that review has been that, while a sign cannot be regulated based on its content, regulating it based on location is fair game.

Commissioners began review of the changes last month, but have asked the staff to again go back to the drawing board on some key issues. They want staff to take a closer look at the residential property language under the temporary sign provision, and also whether it is possible to add another section that would exempt temporary signs under certain types of properties, namely churches, schools, nonprofits, etc. Several commissioners have vocalized the desire to ensure that a church noting the location of its services, or a Boy Scout troop noting its meeting location, are not penalized.

Some have even suggested that a full-scale review of the entire sign ordinance is in order, but both town staff and the commission’s council representative, Vice Mayor Kelly Burk, said she wanted the commission to address, for now, solely the changes needed to comply with the Reed ruling, and then move on to a full review down the road.

krodriguez@loudounnow.com

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