After several rural business owners were forced to remove the signs they rely on to bring in business, the county government is reviewing its regulations.
The Board of Supervisors last week voted unanimously to direct staff member to review the county sign rules for wayside stands and farm markets in the Agricultural Rural zoning district and to provide recommendations on amendments that could give western Loudoun business owners more flexibility.
The Planning and Zoning Department will use a list of eight suggestions presented by Supervisors Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) that could reduce or eliminate rural sign permit fees and generally allow for more signs.
For the past six months, the county has been citing western business owners with sign violations for not having permits or displaying too many. Those most notably include Paige Critchley of Paige’s Pit Stop farm store and Dennis Virts of Virts Family Farms along Rt. 9 and Chris Griggs of the Homestead 1870 Farm Market on Harpers Ferry Road.
According to County Public Affairs and Communications Officer Glen Barbour, inspectors don’t actively enforce the sign ordinance, but do so only when they receive written complaints. He said the county received 30 complaints in the Blue Ridge and Catoctin districts between Jan. 1 and March 26.
Critchley, Virts and Griggs said they need the signs to attract custormers and that they’ve lost business since removing them. Critchley said that when she had no signs up, visitors often walked up to her house thinking it was the county animal shelter, which is located next door.
“How can we have farms if … nobody can find them,” Higgins asked during the board’s April 18 meeting.
Under county regulations, businesses are required to apply for commercial sign permits that cost $235 a piece. Wayside stands are permitted up to six signs and farm markets are allowed to have two.
Critchley applied to designate her property as a wayside stand and a farm market so she could apply for a maximum of eight signs. Virts’s business is classified as a farm market. Griggs as a wayside stand.
Higgins met with affected business owners March 22. He said the county needs to find solutions before rural business owners are forced to remove the signs they’ve invested so much in, like those Virts and Griggs have on the sides of their barns.
“If [Griggs] is forced to paint over that sign … we will watch that sign get painted over on WTOP and we will look like morons,” Higgins said. “This ordinance is inadequate to meet the needs [of rural business owners]—we need to have some thoughtfulness about this process.”
Higgins and Buffington’s recommendations are based on input from business owners during last month’s meeting.
They propose that the county reduce or eliminate permit fees for rural signs; increase the permitted size for farm signs to 40 square feet; permit signs that identify the name of a business to measure up to 8 percent the size of the façade they’re mounted on and no more than 24 square feet when mounted in the ground; allow for eight, 4-square-foot temporary signs and eliminate the need to obtain permits for them; establish property boundaries exempt from the sign ordinance; permit the use of pennant, also known as feather, flags; permit food trucks to display signage; and/or permit wayside stands and farm markets to apply for four offsite signs not to exceed 5 square feet and six onsite signs not to exceed 16 square feet.
The staff will present recommendations on a sign ordinance amendment to the board on June 4. Virts said he’s hopeful the recommendations will favor rural businesses. “I do have faith that they will get it right,” he said.
The board also voted unanimously, with Supervisor Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) having left the meeting early, to extend the appeal period for existing violations until June 30. According to Loudoun County Director of Planning and ZoningAlaina Ray, none of the affected businesses owners have filed appeals.
In addition to sign enforcement, the county is also targeting the food truck Virts uses to sell hamburgers made from the beef raised on his farm. The county is requiring him to either move the truck from his property every night or stop using it and put a “for sale” sign in the window.
Virts said the regulators justified that mandate by presenting a zoning correspondence it issued in December that prohibited a Chantilly-based business from operating a food truck in the Commercial Light Industry zoning district without applying for a special exception permit to operate a restaurant. Like Virts, that business owner intended to connect the truck to the business’s utilities and leave it parked there overnight.
While restaurants are permitted in the Agricultural Rural zoning district, but require a minor special exception permit. Virts has no plans to apply for that designation.
Barbour said the county has been in communication with Virts “to ensure he is fully informed” and that, per the Zoning Ordinance, food trucks are permitted solely in four Planned Development zoning districts as “ambulatory retail or food/beverage vendors and mobile vending carts.”
He noted that past zoning determinations have determined that for food trucks to be considered as a transient use, they have to remain on wheels, may not be hard plumbed or wired and must be removed from the premises daily. Business owners could be excused from removing their food trucks each night if they’re used for a limited or defined period of time as part of an approved special event, a legal event at a winery or brewery or for other uses that involve events or private parties.
Virts’ food truck falls into none of those categories.
He said it wouldn’t make sense for him to move the truck in the evenings because he would have to unplug the electricity and transfer food from the refrigerator into the farm market each night and then back into the truck in the morning after it’s plugged back in and the refrigerator cools down. Instead, he’s not selling hamburgers this year and is selling the truck.
“We’ll just take a loss,” he said. “You can’t fight the county.”