Supervisors table new sign ordinance as concerns arise

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: July 20, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.

PRINCE GEORGE – A decision on changes to the county’s ordinances regarding various types of signs has been delayed until August after some aspects of the proposal drew concern from supervisors regarding the impact they would have on some business and property owners.

Supervisors agreed to table a decision on revisions to the county’s laws governing signs until their August 13 meeting to allow more time for the county’s legal and planning departments to made adjustments to language that, if adopted, would consider vehicles adorned with business information parked in such as a way that the vehicle is being used as a sign in violation of county ordinances.

Talk of changes to the county’s regulation of signs dates back to at least late May when Planning Director Douglas Miles made a detailed presentation walking through the proposed revisions to the county’s laws governing signs in two ways – making it so all signs are equal in the eyes of the law, regardless of content, and also regulate the appearance of signs outside of businesses.

These changes come on the heels of a Supreme Court case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, where justices found the town’s policies regulating temporary signs based on their content was a violation of the First Amendment, with many communities, Prince George included, having to take a hard look at their own regulations to ensure that signs are governed in a content-neutral way. As such, the proposed changes would allow for the county to regulate the appearance and duration the sign can be displayed in the county.

In addition, the proposal would allow signs to be setback 10 feet from the roadway in certain corridors specifically identified by county officials, namely James River Drive between Hopewell’s city limits and Jordan Point Road, Oaklawn Boulevard between Petersburg and Hopewell’s borders, County Drive between Prince George Drive and Petersburg’s city limits, and South Crater Road between the city’s border and the eastern side of Interstate 95 at Exit 45.

Planning officials noted this ordinance does not affect things such as Christmas decorations, traffic and public safety signage, public art displays, window displays, and scoreboards.

The ordinance would also provide conditions regarding the re-use of abandoned freestanding signs, allowing signs that may have ended use to be reused if a new use has been planned, with the example being the old Winn-Dixie sign at The Crossings shopping center being re-faced with NAPA Auto Parts’ name and logo, and regulate the look and style of signs, such as encouraging the use of monument-style signage for places such as businesses and apartment complex entrances.

One of the major points of concern for some supervisors as planning officials walked through the proposal centered around certain prohibitions in the ordinance, not allowing vehicles to be used as signs. While new billboards and the use of people as signs, with an example given by county representatives being dancers outside Liberty Tax Service branches adorned in Statue of Liberty attire, wouldn’t be allowed, the third prohibition would also prevent business owners from parking a vehicle with their business information on it along the broadside of the road on their property to use it as a sign.  That specific section drew questions from board members last week.

According to county documents, among the nearly dozen prohibited sign types, this proposal would not allow “Commercial signs on a parked automobile, motor vehicle, tractor trailer or trailer when used primarily for the purpose of, and serving the function of, a sign,” granting exceptions for when the vehicle is “parked in the operator’s driveway, when loading or unloading, or when parked to the side or rear of a nonresidential business and not visible from adjacent roads.”

When the floor opened for comments from supervisors, some openly shared their concerns with that language.

“I take exception with that,” Supervisor TJ Webb remarked. “When you go into any parking lot, you’re going to park a truck however you can to avoid maneuvering through a parking lot and if you have a nice car, you are going to park further back where I can you won’t have someone dinging up your door. If the truck isn’t up on blocks, I don’t know how you are going to enforce this.”

Echoing those sentiments was Supervisor Alan Carmichael, who also questioned how this would be policed and enforced if it were adopted.

“What is wrong with it if they are on their property and the vehicle is able to be used on the road, they can park it anywhere,” he said. “How can you enforce them not to park a certain way if it is operable.”

Planning department representative Horace Wade did say enforcement would be “discretionary,” saying it would have to be evaluated to determine if the vehicle is merely being parked in a parking space at the building, which wouldn’t be a violation, or if they are parking the vehicle in such a way that it is clearly being used as a sign, which would violate the ordinance. He also noted that specific language could be carved out of the overall ordinance if county leaders wished.

Vice-Chairman Floyd Brown, Jr also questioned enforcement and who the responsibility of tracking and notifying businesses would fall upon, wishing not to add an additional workload on employees and local police while expressing concern about the countywide impact this language would have if adopted.

“We would get phone calls about this,” Brown remarked, with fellow supervisor Carmichael simply stating, “I wouldn’t want this in there.”

“That piece, if it isn’t from the Supreme Court or state law, I am not supporting it,” Webb said candidly.

Another question arose from a concerned citizen, who questioned how temporary free-standing signs would be regulated, as, under the proposal, those types of signs, like those with flashing arrows on them with a message below, they would need to be removed after their use as a sign has ended. Even if the sign was moved to another location on his property, County Attorney Steven Micas said, once the sign is no longer being used as a sign, it would be in violation as the proposal is currently written.

“The signs are to be used as signs,” he said. “If you move it around with nothing on it, it is not a sign because there is nothing on it,” offering a suggestion to supervisors that those kinds of signs could be treated like inoperable vehicles, which have specific storage requirements that allows those vehicles to remain, so as long as they are shielded from being seen from the right-of-way.

WIth the public hearing now complete, supervisors are slated to revisit the issue during their meeting on August 13. Even though the public hearing on the proposed ordinance has already taken place, residents can still offer their thoughts during the public comment period at the August 13 meeting.

The full text of the proposed ordinance is available for review on the county’s website.

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