After a wave of complaints brought down roadside signs promoting wayside stands and farm markets around western Loudoun, county supervisors are looking for a compromise that will help the business owners attract customers while also holding onto a legal tool to stop signs cluttering roadsides across the county.
All of Loudoun’s sign ordinances are complaint-based, meaning if no complaint is filed from the public, the county won’t enforce them. Many of the signs targeted in the recent enforcement effort had been up for years, a fact of life in western Loudoun. But when the complaints came in, the signs came down.
“I empathize with the problem, I really do, and, frankly, if some people wouldn’t just complain to complain, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn).
But as supervisors found when they were forced to change their rules for the display of temporary campaign signs, the court has found the First Amendment restricts the government from regulating signs differently based on their content. At that time, it meant they could not regulate temporary signs with political messages on them differently from other signs. In this case, it may make it difficult to allow signs advertising farms but restrict others.
Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) nonetheless wanted to forge ahead—despite advice from County Attorney Leo Rogers that some of the suggested fixes, which would regulate signs for rural businesses differently, are illegal.
“We have an uncanny knack of complicating the simple, and in this case we have one area of our commercial establishment of the rural economy that has issues with their signs, and these issues would not have existed had the sign ordinance not have been so restrictive,” Higgins said.
Loudoun is remarkable for its strong rules on signs, including a ban on billboards that stretches back to the county’s first Planning Commission in 1941. Those longstanding policies are credited with shaping Loudoun’s appearance today.
Supervisors voted at their June 4 meeting to send the issue to their Transportation and Land Use Committee for further study. They have also extended the appeal period for sign violations to the end of October.