We had become used to them, every fall, particularly in Fairfax County. Rolling waves of political signs in the medians of our major roads, along the highways, at every intersection. Thick, colorful, obnoxious.
And this year, they didn’t sprout. At all. With little fanfare, some Fairfax County politicians got together and helped pass a bill in Richmond in April which deleted a big fat loophole in Virginia law. The loophole prohibited Fairfax County only from taking down political signs.
Fairfax County still hasn’t finalized an agreement with the state Department of Transportation to enable the county to remove the signs themselves. But the county sent a letter to the political parties informing them that the signs were no longer legal in Fairfax, and both sides apparently have respected the law. So much so that Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) stood up in a recent Fairfax Board meeting and congratulated both Democrats and Republicans for keeping the highways signless.
The issue of banning signs in the roadways, particularly on the Fairfax County Parkway and Braddock Road in southern and western Fairfax, was a uniter, not a divider. “Whenever I mentioned it in civic association meetings,” Herrity said, “it was the only time I got a standing ovation.”
But who will actually enforce this? And pay for it? Ahh, the eternal question. Meanwhile, most everyone — including the realtors and the weight loss folks — is abiding by the new law. So far.
Believe it or not, signs or advertising on state right-of-ways have been illegal for a long time. But the state Department of Transportation has been too busy with serious road business to chase down pesky sign posters in any great volumes. So Fairfax, at some point in the past, had a section inserted into the law allowing it to snatch the signs itself, if it signed a deal with VDOT and held a public hearing.
But somehow, if Fairfax took on that authority, the law then created an exception for “signs and advertising supporting an individual’s candidacy for elected public office or other ballot issues,” so long as they cleaned up their signs three days AFTER the election. Wait, after? So if Fairfax can take down signs, they can’t take down THOSE signs?
This led to no signs being taken down. And there were 99 candidates running for various jobs last year, according to a Fairfax board initiative sponsored by Herrity and Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence).
Herrity then took the matter to Del. David Albo (R-Fairfax). Albo was chief patron on a bill that deleted the exception for political signs in Fairfax and added a section allowing all counties to cut deals with the state to allow the counties to take down signs on state roads. Albo’s bill passed almost unanimously.
“Its always been illegal, but now there’s an enforcement mechanism,” Albo said. “All you’ve got to do is prosecute one time and they’ll be gone.”
It could be argued that there’s a Freedom of Speech issue here, and newer candidates could suffer further in the name recognition area. Dan Scandling, Rep. Frank Wolf’s campaign manager, said he wasn’t troubled by the new restriction and that Wolf’s folks have never placed signs too heavily in medians, which I’d agree with. Of course, Wolf hasn’t faced a serious challenge since the Eisenhower administration.
Besides the aesthetic issues of the campaign signs, there can be safety issues with visibility or loose signs. So there could be a compelling government interest. But local governments aren’t exactly spoiling for new services to take on.
Fairfax County has not scheduled its required public hearing on the matter, and the question still needs to be resolved of “where would we get the resources to address this issue,” county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald said. “We have to figure out how we can add this to our existing workload” at the same time that County Executive Ed Long is asking departments to propose five percent cuts, Fitzgerald said.
One way is for the candidates to voluntarily abide by the law. So far, it seems to be happening.
[P.S.: There was also an exception in the law for realtors in Fairfax “promoting a special event from Saturday to Monday.” The realtors were able to keep their exception in the law. So don’t go calling 911 on their signs.]
H/T: G. Mathiesen, Centreville