Friday, December 30, 2011

Illegal Signs in Arlington: Remove 'Em or Report 'Em

We have discussed temporary sidewalk signs, real estate signs, and signs on utility poles.  Illegal signs are a problem.  They are ugly.  The people who place them dont remove them, adding to litter and garbage.  They pose visibility risks on roads and dangers to utility workers.  They are unfair to businesses that abide by the rules.  And aesthetically they are ugly (much like graffiti in a community).
So what should you do about illegal signs?  Here is what Arlington has to say:
Some citizens are aware of our sign regulations and already take it upon themselves to pick up illegal signs . . . What can residents do?  Either remove it or report it. To remove it, be sure that you are safe at all times from traffic and not on private property.  If it is safe to remove a sign, consider removing it and throwing it away.
Of course, that was Arlington, TX, not Arlington, VA.  

In Arlington, VA, if you remove signs you can get charged with a felony. Arlington County Board Chairman Christopher Zimmerman likewise has reportedly advised against citizens taking down illegal signs.  On the other hand, Civic Associations have considered a motion to make it legal for citizens to remove trash, er, I mean illegal signs.

This leaves a couple of questions.  

If these signs are illegal, are they not either litter or abandoned property?

If these signs are illegal, how can you be charged with a felony for removing them (particularly when the placers of the signs are not charged)?

One of my favorite responses to illegal signs, is to place another sign directly in front of the illegal sign, stating that the sign has been reported to Arlington County as illegal.

Perhaps Arlington County could make public data about its illegal sign enforcement efforts (how many signs have been removed, what enforcement actions have been taken, and what fines have been imposed).

In the mean time, that leaves reporting illegal signs to Arlington County Zoning Enforcement (but dont bother to send pictures of the illegal signs, because that crashes ArlCo's staff's computers and they dont like that very much ---> File Under: Really?). 

Arlington Rules for Signs on Utility Poles

Okay, we covered temporary sidewalk signs and real estate signs.  What about signs on utility poles?

Arlington County told me that signs on utility poles are always illegal - but they didnt provide the rule that says this.  

Utility poles tend to be owned by the power companies (and they lease access to the poles to everyone else, like telephone and cable companies).  Arlington's power company is Dominion Power. Giving Dominion's website a good going over, I could not find a clear statement by the power company that they disfavor signs on their utility poles.  Many other utilities clarify that signs on poles are justification for being placed on the naughty list. NOVEC states signs on utility poles are illegal, but then cites to Virginia Ordinance 33.1-373 which deals with signs on state highways, not utility poles.  NOVEC goes on to explain why signs on utility poles, which are usually secured with staples or nails, are a problem:
The nails and screws used to post signs create direct and indirect hazards for NOVEC crews. The primary danger is that these sharp objects can tear the rubber gloves and sleeves our employees wear to protect them from getting electrocuted. A secondary danger is the damage that’s done to the pole. Over time, water seeps into holes surrounding nails, damaging the pole. Eventually the pole deteriorates and has to be replaced, creating another expense for NOVEC.
But is it illegal?

The two times that Arlington Zoning Ordinance Section 34 mentions signs and utility poles, it states that the particular placement in question is illegal:
  • No real estate signs on utility poles. Sec. 34.E.9
  • No political signs on utility poles. Sec. 34.E.15.b
Also remember that unpermitted temporary sidewalk signs are only allowed immediately in front of the commercial establishment.  If the sign is not in front of the store, and is not permitted (and if its attached to a utility pole, its a good bet they dont have a permit), then the placement of the commercial sign is not allowed under the Arlington code.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Well as always you can contact the Arlington Zoning Enforcement office.  But these poles belong to Dominion Power.  So it seems like it would make sense to contact Dominion Power

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Arlington Rules for Real Estate Signs

In the continuing coverage of the Trouble With Signage, we look at the rules for real estate signs.  These rules are perhaps a little more straight forward.  Zoning Ordinance Sec. 34.E.9 states
Unlighted directional real estate "for rent" or "sale" signs,
  • not exceeding one and one-half (1 1/2) square feet in area, 
  • are permitted on public property 
  • Can be displayed only from sundown on Friday to sundown on Sundays and on legal holidays. 
  • Not more than one (1) sign for each real estate agency shall be displayed in any one (1) street intersection 
  • Not on utility poles, trees, or landscape beautification areas, traffic circles, schools, parks, or recreational areas.
  • Each such directional "for rent" or "sale" sign posted on public right-of-way shall contain the name of the real estate company or agency which caused the sign to be posted. 
  • Such signs shall not be placed in such a fashion as to constitute a "vision obstruction" at street intersections as specified in Section 32 of this ordinance.
Note that nothing in this provision gives Real Estate agents permission to stick their signs on your property. 

See a sign violating the rules.  Take a picture of it and reporting it to Zoning Enforcement.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Arlington Rules for Temporary Sidewalk Signs

What exactly are the rules concerning commercial signs on public land, like sidewalks, roadways, and telephone poles.  I asked Arlington County if they had a clear statement of what the rules are and where to file a complaint - after all, the rules were just amended.  I was referred to Sec. 34 of the Zoning Ordinance.  So, guessing that there is no clear statement of what the sign rules are that the average citizen can understand, I thought I would have a go at it.

Yes, I am sick of ugly signs that block sidewalks or litter our telephone poles.  No, I am not a practicing attorney in Virginia.  Yes, this is zoning ordinance - so imagine trying to translate the language of a Irken Invader - now imagine trying to translate the language of a drunk babbling Irken Invader - and that's what its like to try to read zoning ordinances (which is why it would be nice if the county would provide some plain english information).

Temporary Sidewalk Signs

A "temporary sidewalk sign" is "A temporary, self-supporting sign made of durable material 45 and located on the sidewalk in front of a use for which such a sign is allowed." Sec. 34.B as amended

A temporary sidewalk sign can be displayed without a permit if (Sec. 34.E as amended)
  • It's maximum size is 7 sq ft, maximum height of 3.5 ft
  • Only one per entrance (with entrances no closer than 200 feet. If closer than 200 feet, than only one sign is permitted)
  • It doesnt have its own lighting
  • Signs are permitted only during business hours
  • Sidewalk is located
    • On sidewalks were there is a minimum of six foot clear walkway (not clear if that is with - or without the sign)
    • Not in the clear walkway for the site
    • Within two feet of the building face, or within the landscaping or utility zone with at least one foot between the sign and the curb
    • Not in tree pits not covered with metal grates
  • Signs are self supporting
Parking garages have their own additional rules.


Arlco provides the following information about how to report a violation of a zoning code (like the sign rules)
To make a complaint please call (703) 228-3232 between the hours of 8:00am and 5:00pm, Monday through Friday or email us. All complaints will be taken and addressed by one of our administrative staff personnel. You can also file a complaint on-line by clicking our Investigation Request Form   and the request will be sent to our staff in a timely manner.
You can help in our investigation of your concern by:
  • Reporting to staff the correct address where the problem is located. Having the exact address is very critical and most helpful to inspectors when investigating the complaint.
  • Clearly state the problem as it deals with Code Enforcement. Remember, we cannot see the problem you see while on the phone. Give specific details and problems as it relates to the nature of your call.
  • Our administrative staff will initiate a case and assign it to the district inspector for that area. We will service that case in 3-5 business days.
Sometimes other agencies or departments are responsible for investigating your complaint. We will advise you of that department’s phone number and contact name if possible and you can speak directly with that agency.
My recommendation - take a picture of the problematic sign, and include it with your complaint.