By Kurt Walters

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A component of the economic vitality plan adopted by the

Albemarle County Board of Supervisors

in early 2010 is one step closer to being implemented.

The county

Planning Commission

voted 4-0 earlier this week to recommend supervisors approve a proposed ordinance to simplify and relax signage regulations.

“One of the things [the Planning Commission] talked to us about is that if we’re going to do sign changes, let’s keep on the theme of simplicity and [reduced] applicant and staff time,” said Ron Higgins, Albemarle’s chief of zoning.

The action plan tasked county staff with examining the economic impacts of current regulations on signs. That study has already led to process-related streamlining of the sign approval process, with more clarity regarding requirements and coaching for applicants, according to Higgins.

Higgins said the need to save staff time because of reduced government revenue and ensuing personnel cuts was another major factor prompting the rules.

“Zoning and Enforcement [staff] is half of what it was five years ago,” he added.

The proposed regulatory changes include measures such as increasing the maximum sign size for shopping centers; eliminating freestanding signs for anchor stores of large developments in favor of “bonus tenant panels” on main signs; and changing the current wall sign height limit of 20 to 30 feet to a rule allowing a wall sign to be nearly as high as the building on which it is located.

Morgan Butler of the

Southern Environmental Law Center

said that high development standards protect community character, which leads to economic vitality, but that some of the proposed changes put these benefits at risk.

“[The wall sign rule is] a sweeping change that would essentially eliminate the height restriction altogether,” Butler said.

Neil Williamson of the

Free Enterprise Forum

disagreed, saying that these new regulations could actually improve aesthetics by encouraging redesign of older, “grandfathered” signs.

Higgins noted that signage allowed under the revised regulations would still be significantly smaller than some existing signs.

“The absolute biggest sign in Albemarle County that you could come up with [under these rules] would be about half the size of the

Rio Hill

[Shopping Center] sign,” Higgins said. “It’d be 64 square feet … that’s your worst-case scenario.”

Higgins said that county staff solicited input from the community over the last year through roundtables with stakeholders such as businesspeople, sign makers and environmental groups.

Butler said he thought the process was fair, but still may not have attracted enough community input.

“It’s just hard to get an average member of the public to show up and focus on specific changes to sign ordinances,” Butler said. “It’s mostly people with business interests that show up.”

Commissioners

Linda Porterfield

,

Duane Zobrist

and

Tom Loach

were not present at Tuesday’s meeting.

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