After lawsuit, Fairfax County may loosen rules on electronic signs

January 18, 2013

Prompted by a First Amendment lawsuit filed last year by a Vienna Methodist church, Fairfax County officials are looking at loosening their rules for electronic signs.

Under the county’s current zoning ordinance, digital signs that use flashing or moving text are banned. The lawsuit took issue with how the county defined “moving.”

In a violation letter, county officials told the Church of the Good Shepherd that changing a sign’s message more than twice in 24 hours constituted moving text, and the church broke county law by showing three messages on a day last July. One offered passersby refuge from the heat, another promoted the church’s Web site, and another listed the time of a group prayer meeting.

The lawsuit ended after the county backed down, agreeing that the church could change the message as many times a day as it saw fit, so long as the interval was “reasonable.”

But that raised a question: how to define reasonable.

In a committee meeting this week, members of the Board of Supervisors had trouble agreeing. No one spoke in favor of the two-message-per-day limit — Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said it was decidedly unreasonable — but supervisors had differing ideas about how to loosen existing restrictions.

After it was suggested that the county allow message changes once per hour, Bulova said she’d be comfortable going even further.

But others seemed to think it was too much.

“These signs are garish. They’re just awful,” said Penny Gross (D-Mason).

Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) said she’s worried about cumulative effects if digital signs continue to proliferate. “Do you really want to drive down the road and see 15 moving signs in front of you? If we say yes,” there will be no going back.

In a presentation to the board, county staff said supervisors should aim to rewrite the rules in a way that strikes a balance between neighborhood and safe driving concerns and the rights of businesses, churches, schools and other organizations that want to use electronic signs.

Digital signs are effective, growing in popularity and here to stay, staff members told the board.

They added that many in the county don’t comply with existing rules, and increased enforcement could prove challenging.

The staff members gave a number of options for ways the board could choose to strengthen restrictions, including limits on brightness and location. And they pointed to a new ordinance in Arlington that calls for no more than one message change per minute and differing levels of brightness based on the time of day.

No formal decisions were made during the meeting. The staff members said they would continue researching other jurisdictions’ ordinances and return to the board with more information.

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