Greg Preast said he's uncomfortable being the poster child for the latest flare-up of Loudoun County's long-running struggle over signs.
Preast is the owner of Partlow's Market, an old-fashioned butcher shop that also sells fresh seafood and hot food from a former country store in old Ashburn.
"We're all after the same thing in this county, which is positive growth," said Preast, who has been in the food business for more than 20 years. "I want to be able to pay my bills."
County zoning officials cited Preast in the spring for multiple violations of the county's sign regulations. And he's not alone.
From July 2003 to June, county zoning officials have found 112 sign violations at establishments including the Sterling One Industrial property, a KFC-Taco Bell, the Prime Mart store on Church Road in Sterling and the Afghan Grill in Countryside.
The county's rules are considered to be among the region's most stringent, with limitations on the size and placement of signs that vary in each of the county's zoning districts.
The rules, for instance, generally bar erecting a sign "anywhere other than on the property or structure to which it directs attention." They forbid outlining buildings with neon. They also, with some exceptions, ban signs on trees, fences, public utility poles, rocks, sidewalks, lamp posts and bridges.
The owners of many commercial establishments have bristled at the sign rules over the years, and many have been fined for violations. That has heightened the tug-of-war between commercial interests and conservationists, often making deliberations over sign issues a surrogate for the broader debate about changes in the fast-growing county.
Preast, like many proprietors, had erected too many signs, and they were too big, according to county rules.
But what might have remained a typical run-in with county officials has morphed into a rallying cry for some who believe the rules are too tight. Supervisor Lori L. Waters (R-Broad Run) has called attention to the predicament of places such as Partlow's, and some other supervisors have pointed to the market as an example of overeager county enforcement. Board Chairman Scott K. York (I-At Large) has also called for rethinking sign ordinance requirements for some industrial properties to ease the burden of compliance.
The Board of Supervisors voted this month to review sign regulations with the help of community focus groups. Last week they voted 6-2, with York absent, to stop active enforcement of the sign regulations pending the changes, which will be developed over the coming months.
That means that, for now, county officials will investigate suspected violations only after receiving a complaint from a member of the public, not on the initiative of zoning officials. The county still requires permits for erecting signs in the interim, officials noted.
Some longtime activists said pulling back from actively enforcing sign regulations, and moving to roll back some of the rules, wrongly swings the balance toward commerce and away from concerns about the environment. Conservationists say letting large and, in their view, gaudy signs proliferate will mar county vistas, harm tourism and, in general, reduce the quality of life.
"They are laying out the red carpet for the exploitation of this county for commercial interests," said Robert Lyon, who lives south of Purcellville and for years has encouraged enforcement of county sign rules. In the 1990s, he frequently spent weekends looking for violators and bringing them to the attention of authorities. He says the current rules are "very reasonable."
"It allowed small businesses, and large, to advertise in a way that didn't offend the community," Lyon said. "The liberalization of that, I think, is irresponsible."
Preast said he's trying to stay out of politics and declined to speculate on how the rules could change in coming months. But Preast, who said he voluntarily agreed to remove his offending signs while the issue is hashed out, said he's pleased with the direction things seem to be headed.
"I'm happy," he said. "I think the county is very fair and is very focused on business in eastern Loudoun, and I think that's a smart way to go."