By Brian Wheeler

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Businesses applying to install signs in Albemarle County are seeing a 70 percent reduction in total review time, down from 77 days in 2008 to 23 days in 2010. That’s a key finding in

this year’s review

of the county’s sign ordinances, according to Ron Higgins, Albemarle’s zoning chief.

“We are making improvements … and we think we can do better than that,” Higgins said at a Planning Commission work session Tuesday.

What do you think?


to get the poll results on Monday


Commissioners said they were pleased with the initial results and the feedback received at

two roundtables

with local stakeholders. They asked staff to continue to focus on process improvements rather than relaxing Albemarle’s sign standards.

“I’d rather see you drill down and work on process so that your main goal is customer service,” Commissioner

Tom Loach


“I agree with that wholeheartedly,” Commissioner

Duane Zobrist

said. “Let’s use the ordinance to simplify the process, but let’s not mess up norms that we’ve established over a long period of time in the county.”

The review of sign ordinances was triggered by

a plan

approved at the Board of Supervisors’ first meeting in January. The primary focus of the action plan, prepared by Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd, was to make increasing economic development “the top fiscal priority for Albemarle County.”

The county’s sign regulations were highlighted as an example of unfriendly business practices during last year’s supervisor elections. Tom Slonaker, owner of the Forest Lakes Arby’s, lost a court case against the county last October after he was fined for displaying signs without appropriate permits.

Boyd’s plan called for Albemarle to re-examine sign regulations “to ensure they do not overly restrict economic vitality of area businesses” while “maintaining quality aesthetic values.”

Tuesday’s work session allowed the commission to discuss staff’s preliminary recommendations. Public hearings for a zoning text amendment that would introduce further process and regulatory changes will be held in early 2011.

According to Higgins, the data now show that faster reviews of

sign applications

are happening even though the county has fewer staff members handling about the same number of applications.

“There is a lot of coaching that’s gone on,” Higgins said. “We try and help someone understand the process and what they need to give us. The biggest obstacle to getting a sign approved fast is giving us what we need to look at.”

“One thing that has been evident in the discussions with various stakeholders is the perception that the process takes too much time and effort on the applicant’s part,” Higgins wrote in the staff report. “We have not heard a large outcry about the standards themselves.”

Representatives of area environmental groups, who favor stringent sign ordinances, urged the commission to focus on process improvements, as the large majority of the business leaders providing feedback supported Albemarle’s standards.

“To me this reminds me of the old saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” said Morgan Butler, an attorney with the

Southern Environmental Law Center


“The statement suggests that there is no clear need for ordinance changes to allow more signs, to allow bigger signs, to allow higher signs,” Butler said. “Yet some of the proposed changes … are a bit surprising, because that’s what they would allow.”

Neil Williamson

, executive director of the

Free Enterprise Forum

, said he thought the county’s review was heading in a positive direction.

“A business-friendly environment is one that welcomes well-regulated signs, but also welcomes signs,” Williamson said. “I think the discussion has been good, and I think that much of what is going on is moving favorably and I’m appreciative of the process.”


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