Fairfax County says it will revisit sign rule that sparked church lawsuit


The Church of the Good Shepherd in Vienna filed a lawsuit against Fairfax County after being served with a notice saying its sign violated county code because the messages were changed more than twice in a 24-hour period. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 30, 2012

Fairfax County on Thursday backed off its insistence that a Methodist church in Vienna violated a zoning ordinance when it broadcast more than two messages on its digital roadside sign.

The move came a week after the church filed a federal lawsuit against the county, arguing that the county’s rule was arbitrary and violated the church’s First Amendment right to free speech.

In an e-mail sent Thursday to the Board of Supervisors, the county attorney’s office said it has asked the church to agree to change the sign only at a “reasonable interval,” presumably forgoing the limit of two messages a day, according to a county official who saw the e-mail. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the lawsuit is pending.

According to the official, the e-mail said that the code violation against the Church of the Good Shepherd has been dismissed and that the county’s zoning administrator has recommended that the message limit for all electronic signs be reevaluated. The e-mail did not define what a “reasonable interval” was.

Several supervisors praised the decisions.

“This is what happens when you’re not careful with regulation,” Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield) said.

The church, on a scenic, wooded stretch of Hunter Mill Road, installed the electronic sign at the beginning of June, replacing one whose lettering had to be changed manually.

Last month, the congregation received a letter from a zoning investigator saying he had observed three messages on the sign in a 24-hour period — a violation. One message offered neighbors refuge from the heat after the June derecho. Another promoted the church’s Web site, and the third listed the time of a group prayer meeting. The county ordered the church to either permanently limit the sign to two message changes a day or remove it.

Although church officials got a permit to put up the sign, they say they didn’t know about the message limit until the violation letter arrived.

After the county and the congregation couldn’t agree on a compromise, the church filed a lawsuit in federal court in Alexandria arguing that the message limit violates rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.

At the heart of the issue is a zoning ordinance that bans electronic signs that use flashing lights or moving text.

The church’s attorney, Michael York, declined to comment on the proposed compromise except to say that the church has always wanted to find a solution outside of court and still does.

Sherry Spinelli, a member of the church’s board of trustees, said Thursday afternoon that the board had yet to see the county’s offer but that it sounded reasonable. She said all the church wants is to post a few messages a day as it sees fit — not to use scrolling text or put words on a constant, distracting rotation.

Church officials say they think they were singled out for enforcement because someone who doesn’t like the sign complained to the county. Although some neighbors have said they see no problem with it, others have described the sign as too flashy and commercial-looking given the surroundings.

It stands a few feet off the ground. The electronic portion is about 21 / 2 feet tall and 6 feet wide.

Even some who have criticized it, though, have said they don’t understand why the county is concerned with the number of messages it displays.

The church has said that enforcement is arbitrary, with many signs in the county out of compliance and with exemptions for signs that display the time or temperature.

Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) said that’s what he sees as the biggest problem. He noted that school signs across the county routinely break the rules.

“There’s definitely an equity issue that needs to be addressed,” Cook said.

Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) agreed. “What can look crystal clear at 30,000 feet is murky as all get-out at sidewalk level,” he said in a statement.

The hardest part will be deciding on a new definition for what constitutes moving text, Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said. He said he doesn’t want to see anything nearing words that scroll, but he agreed with other supervisors that two messages a day is too restrictive.

“We need to find a consensus on what’s reasonable,” he said.

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