In 1970, a Canadian group called the Five Man Electrical Band sang, "Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blockin' out the scenery, breakin' my mind." Almost 33 years later, some Fairfax County residents and members of the Board of Supervisors are saying that those words have never rung more true.
The signs breaking people's minds these days are those familiar, often handmade notices stapled to poles or stuck in the ground.
"Lose 40 pounds in 40 days!" promises a sign taped to a traffic signal pole. "No tax increase!" declares a sign still staked beside a curb weeks after the Nov. 5 sales tax referendum. A high school play is advertised on a large sandwich board in a median strip. And this twist from a local entrepreneur trying to separate himself from his competitors: "Handyman. Tulane Grad." As if the New Orleans school's reputation as producer of trustworthy and competent odd-job men precedes him.
Two years ago, the county Board of Supervisors appointed a panel made up of residents to investigate the proliferation of signs and recommend how the county could enforce state law, under which such signs are illegal.
Now, the countywide task force's 58-page final report is complete and was recently presented to the supervisors, who forwarded it to the board's legislative committee to consider whether to propose new regulations.
The panel told supervisors they would like to see groups of citizen volunteers take down illegal signs. They also recommended that the code of Virginia be amended so that any Fairfax resident could "remove illegal signs attached to traffic signs or utility poles along the edge of pavement within the public right-of-way." Currently, only state road workers have the authority to remove signs.
Using citizen volunteers, in the same way as the Virginia Department of Transportation's Adopt-a-Highway cleanup program, would allow individuals and groups "to adopt segments of roads around their communities and keep these segments clear of litter and signs," the report said.
As it stands now, a person caught putting up an illegal sign along a public right of way can be fined $100. But the law is ignored because neither the state nor county enforce it or have crews who can remove signs. By contrast, public employees in Fairfax City and Arlington and Prince William counties tear down signs as part of their usual job duties, the report said.
The task force asked the supervisors to enter an agreement with VDOT so that Fairfax County zoning enforcement employees could remove illegal signs, beginning with a six-month pilot program to see whether additional money would be needed. The citizens also asked the board to seek higher penalties.
Among the illegal signs are those placed in highway medians by schools advertising high school plays or parks and recreation centers promoting events. The task force said it "appreciates the spirit in which the signs are erected, [but] the county should set an example and not post illegal signs."
As for the diet and vitamin supplement signs, often with a toll-free number or Internet address, the task force said it was hard to track down the companies. In those cases, the task force said, the signs should be treated as graffiti and removed as quickly as possible, preferably within two weeks after they are put up.
"Illegal sign posters will go elsewhere if they know their signs will be quickly removed," the report said.
David B. Conway of Falls Church, chairman of the task force, said the panel was challenged by its mission to understand the existing sign laws yet to also make recommendations that would "balance the interests of those who depend on signs as their only legitimate form of communication and those who use them solely for profit."
Conway acknowledged, "There is a debate about which signs are objectionable and which ones are useful to the community."
He cited such examples as signs for yard sales and lost pets as some of those signs that certain people may see as useful, or at least innocuous, and others may see as nuisances.
The task force said it would like to see the existing laws clarified so that possible exemptions could be addressed more specifically. Such exemptions could include real estate agents' signs and others that are placed for a limited period.
Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn (R-Dranesville) said that the board's legislative committee would likely review the report and send the supervisors' recommendations to the Virginia General Assembly by the end of the year.
Mendelsohn said he agreed with the panel's recommendation restricting county signs.
"Most reputable businesses don't [post illegal signs.] I feel like we shouldn't do it either," he said.