One Albemarle County fire department is looking to use new technology to better communicate with residents and supporters about everything from bingo night to public safety emergencies.

The Crozet Volunteer Fire Department thinks its outdoor letterboard is ready for retirement. Instead of building messages by hand with removable letters, the fire department is seeking support from the Architectural Review Board for an electronic sign that can be reprogrammed via computer.

However, the ARB’s guidelines for signage in the community’s entrance corridors were written for traditional business signs.

“As stewards of the entrance corridors, we have to protect the look,” board member Fred Missel said at one of three meetings where the issue has been discussed since September.

Besides gas station price boards, the only electronic message sign that exists today is the one for SunTrust bank on U.S. 29 at Rio Road, which displays time, temperature and community announcements. Newer technology allows sophisticated graphics on displays that are in effect large video screens.

Since there have been so few applications, the ARB has yet to establish specific guidelines for the new technology. The last few months have been spent developing criteria that could apply to the fire department’s request and future proposals from others.

“We have been trying to figure out some interim design criteria that the ARB can consider,” said principal planner Margaret Maliszewski. “If those criteria were followed, they might be able to approve it.”

The ARB has many criteria to consider such as size, materials, typeface, color, lighting, illumination and the frequency of message changes.

A majority of board members said they would prefer a more traditional approach, with signs displaying text but not graphics.

Board member Bruce Wardell sees it differently.

“I think I would allow graphics,” said Wardell. “Otherwise, we are basically saying we will allow this new technology, but we are going to limit it to such an extent that it’s pretending to be something else. This technology has the ability to do things that fixed signs don’t.”

Board member Marcia Joseph said there are already guidelines in place for signage and that adding graphics and logos would be out of character in the community’s entrance corridors.

“I agree. That’s why people say Charlottesville is such a beautiful place,” said board member Charles Lebo. “We don’t want to be Anyplace, USA.”

Eric King, from Watchfire Signs, told the ARB it would be pointless to have an electronic sign if you can’t change it and take full advantage of the graphics.

“If you can’t have graphics and colors, it’s not worth the investment,” King said.

King also told the ARB he supports regulation because problems arise in his experience when there is no regulation or enforcement. He added that he believes there are two kinds of advertising that work today — social media and digital signage.

“If you don’t allow displays, that has a pretty significant impact on the tax base,” he said. “We want you to regulate them. On the other hand, not allowing them is almost certainly a mistake for local business and the generation of tax revenues.”

While opinions on the character of the electronic messages vary, the ARB has started formulating some guidelines. For example, it has agreed to allow messages to change four times an hour, or once every 15 minutes.

The Crozet Volunteer Fire Department has yet to submit a formal application but the ARB knows that any action it takes will establish a precedent.

“Once you approve one, it will be hard not to approve others that meet the same guidelines,” Maliszewski said.

ARB members are reviewing examples from other cities to gain a better understanding of the issue. Their findings are slated to be discussed at the board’s next meeting at 1 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Albemarle County Office Building.

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