Fairfax County pride on a license plate? Maybe now residents will want it.


The Autumn license plate for the Commonwealth of Virginia (Photo by Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles) (VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF MOTOR VEHICLES)
January 13, 2013

The Friends of Tibet have one. So do Harley-Davidson owners, fox-hunting enthusiasts and butterflies.

Even the cities of Fairfax and Virginia Beach have their own custom license plates.

So why doesn’t Fairfax County, Virginia’s most populous jurisdiction?

Because if the Department of Motor Vehicles is going to go to the trouble of printing a specialized plate, at least 350 people have to pay upfront. When the county tried the idea in 1999, it fell short: Fewer than 300 of its nearly 1 million residents were willing to cough up an extra $25 a year to show their civic pride.

The city of Fairfax, home to one-fiftieth the number of people, had no problem meeting the threshold in 2001, but the county’s few interested residents ended up getting their order forms and money back.

Now the county is trying again. Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) suggested it at this week’s board meeting, and the rest of the members backed it.

Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), who was among those who got refunds, said she recently spotted a city plate while driving. “I thought, if the little old city of Fairfax can do this, why can’t we? . . . As I recall, we didn’t even get close last time,” she said.

If this time is different, the county would keep $15 of each $25 fee. Under Herrity’s proposal, the proceeds would benefit the World Police and Fire Games, an international sports competition for law enforcement officers that Fairfax will host in 2015. After that, the money would probably go to Visit Fairfax, the county’s tourism and visitors bureau.

A design featuring the county’s seal and its tourism Web site, www.fxva.com, is in the works. Visit Fairfax has agreed to collect the order forms and money. Based on how much Fairfax City brings in — about $5,000 a year — Herrity said he thinks a county plate could generate as much as $250,000 annually.

“I look forward to getting my hands on one in the near future,” he said in a news release after the board’s vote.

But whether a single Fairfax County plate will ever be printed remains to be seen.

Herrity is optimistic.

Last time, the county did little to market the plates. This time, he said, it is planning more of a push. Visit Fairfax and members of the Board of Supervisors are going to publicize the plates once a final design is approved. The police and fire departments may help, too.

“The last time we tried this, we didn’t even have electronic newsletters” for getting county information to residents, Herrity said.

More important, he said, “I think there’s a lot more pride in Fairfax County now.”

Besides special interest, hobby and professional groups, many military units and sports teams have their own Virginia plates. Purple Heart recipients and Pearl Harbor survivors have a plate. So do Redskins and Capitals fans, Surfriders and Parrotheads. There are plates for nearly 100 colleges and universities.

There is a Robert E. Lee plate and one for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The Shriners and Lions have one. So does Rotary International.

A small controversy erupted in 2009 when the state allowed a plate bearing the phrase “choose life,” with the proceeds benefiting a Christian pregnancy resource organization. There is also one that benefits Planned Parenthood, with the message: “Trust women. Respect choice.”

In all, Virginians can choose from more than 200 specialty plates. The most popular? Clean Special Fuel, Wildlife and the Chesapeake Bay, in that order.

Marylanders have many more choices — the A’s alone include the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, the Annapolis Woodworkers Guild and the Ancient Order of Hibernians — and D.C. residents have only about two dozen.

The last time Fairfax County tried for a custom plate, the money was supposed to go toward historic preservation efforts. Although few residents wanted a county plate, lots apparently wanted a say in its design. The idea set off an unusually intense debate over what the plate should look like and who got to decide, all for naught.

There has been no such fuss this time.

Smyth agrees that Fairfax County is different from 14 years ago. It has about 130,000 more people. “And I think we have a higher profile,” she said. “We’ve got more of a sense of place and more of an identity. . . . We’re certainly in the news more.”

But is she optimistic that this time her money for a Fairfax County license plate won’t be returned? She’s not quite ready to say that.

“Let me put it this way: I’m optimistically hopeful.”

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