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ARB sets criteria for electronic message signs in Albemarle

Should the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department decide to follow through with an application for a new electronic message sign, the Albemarle County Architectural Review Board now has design criteria in place for it to follow.

The fire department has sought support for an electronic message sign to replace its manual letterboard. With few previous applications, the board has spent several meetings working on criteria to apply to the new advertising technology.

“It now seems to be the mind of the board that these signs are part of the landscape, so we need reasonable language on how they can be used,” board member Bruce Wardell said at the ARB’s meeting Monday.

Before the board agreed on that, they heard public opinions that made them question if electronic message signs belong in Albemarle.

Candace Smith, an architect and former chair of the ARB, urged the board not to approve such displays in the county’s entrance corridors.

“We should remember that signage is for finding a location, not advertising,” Smith said.

She said she feels that using electronic signs would change the impression of the entrance corridors forever.

Neil Williamson from the Free Enterprise Forum disagreed with Smith and said there is a need for embracing new technology as it moves forward.

“If you choose to push this technology away, you will push businesses away long term,” Williamson said. “You have to consider all options but I encourage you to be open-minded.”

It was the consensus of the board that electronic signs have a place in Albemarle with appropriate regulations, mainly related to graphics and illumination.

“I don’t think the underlying purpose of the entrance corridor is to freeze them with certain means and messages,” Wardell said. “The intent is not to re-create historic artifacts one after another, but rather integrate them to the overall context of our community.”

He said just as the ARB considers issues of scale and texture in modern buildings, it should take that same approach to the technology of signage.

With the use of graphics being the main topic of conversation, board member Charles Lebo suggested being broad with criteria until an application comes in.

“It’s hard for me to come up with a policy and to get more specific without an application,” he said.

Board member Marcia Joseph disagreed and said that, if she were an applicant, she would want the board to be more specific. Applicants need directions so they can make their design as clear as possible, she said.

Ultimately, the board agreed to apply the regular sign ordinance guidelines to digital graphics. It also decided that a prototype for graphics would be sufficient so each individual graphic wouldn’t need approval.

“We are setting up criteria that can run for a year or so while we figure out where there might be other problems,” Lebo said.

Wardell said he thinks the design criteria are a good starting point but the language could be more defined. The new criteria also include other regulations related to background, colors and brightness.

Phil Ianna, a retired professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia, spoke to the ARB about how electronic signs could be evaluated. He was involved in the development of Albemarle County’s dark sky ordinance, which was approved in 1998 and seeks to limit light pollution.

Ianna said LED lighting has benefits in the form of energy savings and a longer lifespan, along with being dimmable and more flexible. He also brought his illumination meter for the board to try out so it had an idea of what levels they were approving for daytime and nighttime illumination of electronic signs.

After the demonstration, Wardell said it would be valuable to review the specific illumination guidelines at another work session.

“We need to make sure we are being consistent with our applications and have provided workable guidelines for them,” Wardell said.

The ARB will recommend that the new criteria be included in a future update of the Entrance Corridor Sign Guidelines. Those changes eventually will require approval from the Board of Supervisors.