Signs of Anti Business Bluster at the ARB

By. Neil Williamson, President

What started as a small matter of replacing Crozet Volunteer Fire Department’s aging channel letter community announcement sign has morphed into a debate over the future of business signage in Albemarle County’s Entrance Corridors.

According to Albemarle’s website:

The Albemarle County Architectural Review Board (ARB) is appointed by the Board of Supervisors and is charged with the responsibility of regulating the design of development within the County’s Entrance Corridors. Entrance Corridors are streets that provide routes of tourist access to the County and to historic landmarks, structures, and districts. The goal of this regulation is to ensure that new development in these corridors reflects the traditional architecture of the area and that development within the corridors is orderly and attractive.

While the impact of such regulation may seem small, and well it should be, Albemarle has perverted the original intent of the EC legislation and restricted 21 roadways as Entrance Corridors.  It is our understanding that once the John W. Warner/Meadowcreek Parkway is completed the number will advance to 22.

With 21 Entrance Corridors, Albemarle spends a vast amount of money and staff time aggressively examining the architectural design, landscape design, color scheme, lighting and signage of all parcels sharing a boundary line with the EC or within 500 feet of the EC.

The result is any restriction placed on the Entrance Corridor effectively covers a majority of the county’s commercial activities.

With this as a backdrop, the ARB discussion of electronic signs was especially interesting.  Albemarle Zoning Staff reminded the ARB that any such sign would require a special use permit and no such application has come forward to date.

The staff was aware that the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department (CVFD) planned to submit an application in the near future.

The CVFD uses their existing sign to get the word out about fire prevention, promote CVFD fundraising and community messages.  The existing sign is pictured below and predates the EC legislation:

Crozet-Fire-Department-Sign_thumb.jpg

Signage technology has changed a great deal since CVFD first erected this message board.  Recognizing this digital-sign-example.jpgadvancement and noting the age of the current message board, CVFD came to the ARB with an idea – an electronic message board; similar in style to the one pictured to the right.

It is important to note, the Free Enterprise Forum does not have an opinion regarding the CVFD potential application – or any other application for that matter —  we use this as an example of our concern for the significant policy decision the ARB is considering.

In early October the ARB determined some new guidelines to use regarding digital signs and message boards

The ARB held a work session on design criteria for electronic message signs. ARB members made the following comments on the “Characteristics and Criteria” table presented by staff:
1. Eliminate the criteria regarding daytime and nighttime intensity limitations.
2. Add a note indicating that standard color guidelines apply, including the limitation to three colors.
3. Add a criteria indicating that graphic images will not be allowed on the electronic message portion of
the sign.
4. Graphics are prohibited in the electronic message portion of the sign.

This week Eric King from Watchfire Signs, a digital sign company met with the ARB and explained the state of the industry.  Somewhat surprisingly, he indicated that appropriate regulation makes for good signage as no one wants to be Las Vegas (unless of course you are Las Vegas).  King also said “Unreasonable regulation is harmful to tax generation as commerce will go elsewhere.”  He also alluded to constitutional questions regarding commercial free speech.

He raised a number of concerns regarding the proposed regulations.  One of the great benefits of the digital signs is the ability to readily change it and to include graphics.  It seems like Albemarle’s ARB was opposed to both of these advancements.

King said, “If you restrict color and eliminate graphics, you effectively ban digital signs”.

ARB Chair Bruce Wardell had more questions than answers in this work session indicating his need for the county attorney’s opinion on some of the matters raised.  Wardell also said, “If we allow 21st Century technology, it seems a bit hard to restrain using 19th century law.”

ARB Member Marcia Joseph took a different tact, she wanted to make the digital signs appear just as a fixed sign would and be regulated the same.  In her argument she cited the need for fairness for all those businesses who already have approvals under the existing guidelines.  The Free Enterprise Forum finds this argument to be rather circular seeing as businesses existed in the entrance corridors prior to the creation of the ARB and the body had no problem creating a new set of rules that made doing business more difficult to new comers – why not make it easier?

Albemarle County seems to have a need to understand economic development is more than a department it is a philosophy.  While we understand the need to regulate the size of signage and the speed of content changes, we fail to see the benefit with maintaining antiquated sign regulations that no longer fit the industry.

This business visibility issue is not the straw that broke the camel’s back regarding economic vitality – but it is a sign [pun intended] of how far we have to go before existing businesses, and start ups feel welcome in Albemarle County.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

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20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

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One response

  1. A strong sense of community aesthetics, including restrictive sign controls, enhances, not diminishes, the value of commercial properties. Communities that look good attract more visitors and a higher level of investment. Take a look at the level of business activity in Hilton Head, S.C., Boca Raton, Fl., or Boulder, Co. and compare it to localities which allow uncontrolled signs and impose no requirements for landscaping and other aesthetics. Hilton Head and Beaufort County require uniform signs that are close to the ground. The result is that people looking for businesses can find them easily. Compare it to driving into a neighborhood where the house numbers are all on the mailboxes, as opposed to wherever. If a community allows high, large and bright signs, every business will feel compelled to have one to “compete” visually with the surroundings. It’s certainly great for the sign businesses, but not so great for businesses or the community. I represented a very large maker of signs for a number of years and I have seen this competition in action. It’s not pretty. I have seen businesses literally fail by being driven to compete visually with large, high electronic signs in order to be seen in cluttered surroundings.

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