By a vote of 3-2 with Steve Elswick and James Holland dissenting, the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors approved a new sign ordinance on July 24.
The vote was the culmination of a nearly three-year process, according to supervisor Chris Winslow.
Twenty-four people spoke during public comment before the vote, and several complained about a lack of public input. However, supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle said that the Planning Commission held 12 meetings about the sign ordinance and noted that they were advertised and available to watch via live stream.
The revised sign ordinance keeps the number of billboards at 81 but allows them to be moved. It also allows electronic message centers – which are allowed to change every 10 seconds – in most areas of the county. Putting up an EMC in five of the county’s “village” areas – Chester, Midlothian and Bon Air, and sections of Belmont and Turner roads – will now require a conditional use permit. The old ordinance required such a permit for all EMCs.
Winslow – who is an attorney – said he uses an EMC outside his business. This is valuable because “a lot of businesses are buried in the back,” he said. “A 10-second dissolve or flip is not distracting,” he added, referring to the length of time a message can appear before it changes. “Increasing commerce in Chesterfield County should be our No. 1 goal.”
Elswick said he agreed with the comments of ChamberRVA official John Easter, who called signage a “really key tool for brick and mortar stores” who are up against e-based commerce.
Although he offered the initial motion that was seconded by Dorothy Jaeckle and passed, Elswick later offered a substitute motion that failed. His second motion would have approved the billboard ordinance but deferred action on EMCs until Aug. 28 so that staff could get more information about public safety in relation to EMCs. Holland – who said he supported the new ordinance but wanted a delay to get more public input – voted for Elswick’s second motion, which failed 2-3.
During public comment, local Realtor Steve Overgard said realtors support the new ordinance.
“I think it’s a fantastic setup because finally we’re going to go into the 21st century,” Albert Meyer said.
“We’re ruining communities [with] these signs,” Marie Stella said.
Mike Uzel disagreed with setting aside five village areas where EMCs would not be allowed without a conditional use permit.
Brenda Stewart said billboards are ugly, and added that Fairfax County bans them.
Andy Scherzer of the Greater Southport Business Association called the new ordinance “an evolutionary upgrade” that followed a “thoughtful and professional review.”
Murti Khan – who is running as a Democrat for the Bermuda district supervisor seat in November against Republican Jim Ingle Jr. – expressed concern about payday loan companies advertising on billboards.
Others also expressed concern about content, including Kim Marble, who mentioned ads for alcohol and cannabis, among other things. However, county attorney Jeffrey Mincks said that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of speech and cited court rulings.
Phil Lohr of Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development noted that Lamar Advertising owns 71 of the 81 billboards and said that, in addition to the five “villages,” Jefferson Davis Highway should also be excluded from EMCs.
Allen Twedt, a co-owner of Superior Signs, said signage doesn’t increase driver distraction and cause accidents. He added that the Virginia Department of Transportation allows a four-second interval on EMCs.
Police chief Jeffrey S. Katz said he was a traffic patrolman for four years and noted that a sign was never the cause of any accidents that he investigated.
The new ordinance went into effect immediately.