The Arlington County Board early Wednesday approved a sweeping overhaul of sign regulations that continues to allow roofline signs and imposes slight restrictions on illuminated displays.
Previously approved signs that don’t meet the new rules will be considered grandfathered in, though the county arguably has some leverage to eventually force them into compliance.
The county, too, will have to work with civic associations and other groups, as A-frame signs to advertise community meetings or spaghetti dinners will no longer be allowed in the public right-of-way. Such signs must now be smaller and attached to the ground like political signs.
The board heard testimony and deliberated for about six hours before the vote at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The conversation got testy on more than one occasion as board members tried to balance the needs of the business community, the desires of the neighborhoods and the obligation of the county to protect national landmarks and parks.
“It's easy to mess that up,” resident Carrie Johnson told the board. “And it's frankly too hard to try to calibrate at what level a sign becomes obnoxious. It's much easier to unplug them all.”
The 61-page sign ordinance governs everything from window to wall signs, temporary or fixed, along with their placement, how bright they can be and what they can face.
But after 18 months of work, most of the contention centered on a few specific items.
Board members Chris Zimmerman and Walter Tejada tried unsuccessfully to impose a ban on all roofline signs — despite pleas from the economic development community that such signs were a deal-sealer in landing or keeping major employers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Deloitte.
Signs above 40 feet are allowed by the new ordinance, which puts on paper the county's general practice and gives the county some ability to regulate them. They are not allowed in residential and some low-density commercial districts.
Zimmerman said he realized the value in large companies advertising their presence here but argued that those corporations should let architecture speak to their prominence.
“The Chrysler Building didn’t need to say ‘Chrysler’ on it,” he said.
It was an uphill battle, despite being the option favored by the Arlington Planning Commission. One of the driving points was that the new ordinance turns over a good deal of approval to county staff — taking the board out of the decision-making process in some cases.
Economic Development Commission Chairwoman Marty Almquist began the night with a bleak forecast: Corporate vacancy is up from recent years to 18 percent in Crystal City and 13 percent countywide, a trend that’s expected to continue for five to 10 years.
She and others argued that with advent of the Silver Line, companies looking for Metro access could relocate to cheaper space in Tysons Corner or Reston. Such companies find value in roofline signs — in advertising their product and in displaying their prestige.
“It's important for Arlington to show to D.C. and the rest of the world that there are great companies in Arlington,” said Rory Channer, the marketing director for the Corporate Executive Board on Lynn Street in Rosslyn.
The county also faced pressure from parks officials and various neighborhood representatives about signs that affect that view of Arlington National Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Board member Libby Garvey said she thought most people in Arlington didn’t care much about sign regulations as long as bright lights weren’t shining in their bedroom windows. Some people even like them, she said.
“The context is important. We don't live in Yosemite. We don't live in Shenandoah. We live in an urban village,” Garvey said.
“Without signs, we'd be empty and cold. And I know other people don't feel that way. But signs in part make Arlington what it is. And those signs say, ‘We are proud to be here.’ ”
Chairwoman Mary Hynes was able to tighten the restrictions on illuminated signs a bit — illuminated signs facing national monuments and parks must go dark by 10 p.m., rather than midnight as staff had proposed; buildings facing those places also are limited to one sign per façade; and any illuminated sign within 100 feet of a residential or mixed-use neighborhood is limited to 150 lumens, or about the brightness level of the Red Velvet sign in Clarendon.
The other main point of contention came when the board debated grandfathering in non-conforming signs. Zimmerman again led the charge, saying it was wrong to change the rules for everyone except those who weren’t already following them.
Deborah Albert, a county planner, said not grandfathering in those signs would restrict new businesses going into buildings home to the offending signs. After a long and, at times, terse conversation, Zimmerman relented, saying he was generally for liberalizing ground-level sign regulations and couldn’t find any example of an offending sign that he thought should be illegal, anyway.
The local government will work with the Arlington County Civic Association to identify the types of signs its member organizations are used to using to try to figure out a way for those groups to continue getting their messages out.
A-frame signs and others that don’t attach to the ground can be safety hazards in the public right-of-way, the county has determined. They are still allowed on private property.
The overhaul of the sign regulations is part of a larger attempt to revamp the county’s zoning ordinance.