County supervisors, attorneys and zoning regulators are still looking for a fix after a series of complaints brought down roadside signs advertising wayside stands and farm markets around western Loudoun, threatening those businesses’ future.
As a short-term fix, the county may help the affected business owners pay the costly fee for to apply for an exception to sign rules.
Those signs are out of compliance with Loudoun’s strict sign regulations—but those rules are only enforced if a complaint filed, and those farms and markets have long relied on signs to advertise themselves to drivers passing by. The concerns about Loudoun’s sign ordinances were brought to light when one person began filing complaints about signs advertising agricultural businesses in western Loudoun, and those business owners now face fines if they keep their signs up.
On June 4, county supervisors extended the appeals period for those citations to the end of October to buy themselves and those business owners some time before the fines start coming, but they are still looking for answers. County staff members have warned changing the sign ordinance would be a lengthy process—as long as three years—because of its complexity, the limited county staffing available and the requirements for public outreach. The courts have also ruled under freedom of speech protections that it would be unconstitutional for the county to regulate signs differently based on their content—such as putting different rules on a sign that advertises a farm stand versus a sign advertising an apartment complex.
Supervisors have offered several suggestions for getting around the regulations to provide more permanent signs for rural businesses, most of which the county’s attorneys have advised them would be unconstitutional.
During the June 18 meeting of the board’s Transportation and Land Use Committee, Director of Planning and Zoning Alaina Ray told supervisors there is actually already a fix available—”the issue at hand is who pays for that.”
Sign Development Plans allow business owners to work with the county to develop special rules for their business when the normal sign ordinances don’t work. If a business owner has a sign out of compliance, enforcement action is stayed once they file a Sign Development Plan application and while it is in progress. The plans are commonplace around Loudoun’s major commercial projects and town center developments like One Loudoun. But the fee to apply is $5,120.
Supervisors on the committee supported a staff proposal to explore a grant program for marketing rural businesses—which could help those businesses pay the fee for a sign development plan.
It would be a county grant to help pay for a county fee, but Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning James David pointed out there are already policies for fee waivers on the books for which those businesses may not qualify.
“This is temporary,” said Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run). “We don’t need to create super dense criteria. If you’re bringing a sign development plan, and you’re a business, you get an incentive to cover the fee until we get this [zoning ordinance amendment] done. Tada!”
“I don’t know if there’s any option other than what Mr. Meyer just said that keeps us out of court,” agreed County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).
The committee voted unanimously, 5-0, to direct the staff to pursue that idea. If the full Board of Supervisors approves that idea, a report is expected back in September.
County planners expect to update the county’s sign ordinance as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the county’s zoning ordinances, following last month’s adoption of a new county comprehensive plan. That process is expected to take years.
The county’s sign ordinance may also already be difficult to defend in court. Earlier in their term, supervisors oversaw an update to the regulations on temporary yard signs in reaction to a court ruling that found regulating signs for political campaigns differently than other signs was unconstitutional.
“We do have what could be perceived as many sign content-based issues embedded in our ordinance, and we do need to look at the entirety of the ordinance,” Ray said.