Fairfax County Adopts New Zoning Rules for Signs

Signs - New Zoning Ordiance

The Board of Supervisors on March 19 adopted a significant rewrite to its zoning for signs to put in place content-neutral language.

The overhaul was needed in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said local governments can’t limit signs based on their content or message. In the 2015 case Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., the court ruled that “content-based” regulations do not meet the strict scrutiny test required by the First Amendment to protect free speech.

While the county retained many of its previous sign polices and regulations, the revamped ordinance includes some new regulations and sign categories in addition to the content-neutral language. It also reorganizes the sign rules to make them more user friendly as part of the county’s overall project to modernize its zoning ordinance, dubbed zMOD.


Electronic Display Sign Rules

For the first time, the zoning rules explicitly regulate freestanding, electronic display signs like the kinds often seen at schools and churches. The rules address the size for these signs, their brightness and how frequently the text changes on them.

Their display screen would be limited to 50 percent of the total size of the overall sign, whereas today they often make up 100 percent of a sign’s face. The regulations also dictate that the copy on these signs may not change more than once every eight seconds, and the change must be instantaneous without rolling, fading, flashing, varying in brightness or giving the illusion of movement. Digital signs also cannot have white, off-white or yellow backgrounds only, and the display boards must include a photo cell to automatically dim them after sunset.


Yard Signs Added as a New Category

Wholesale revisions were made to what zoning rules previously called “temporary signs.” Now called “minor signs,” these moveable signs include sandwich-board signs and banners. The new rules also added “yard signs” as a new category for residential property.

On residential properties, there are no restrictions on the number of yard signs allowed or how long they may be displayed. However, homeowners are limited to posting a maximum of 12 square feet of total yard signage, with no single sign exceeding 4 square feet in area and a height of 4 feet.


Signs on Non-Residential Properties

For non-residential properties, the new regulations also allow minor signs for businesses and non-profits. These regulations differ depending on the type of road on which the property is located. For properties on a major thoroughfare — such as Richmond or Lee highways — up to 32 square feet of minor signage can be displayed on each lot. For all other properties, up to 24 square feet can be displayed. Like yard signs, there are no restrictions on the display time, but there is a limit on the number of freestanding signs – only two per lot with a height of 4 feet. This is a significant change from the previous ordinance that generally didn’t allow businesses to display temporary signs.

The new ordinance also puts in place limits for what are called “off-premises” commercial signs, like signs pointing the way to open houses. Such signs can only be posted from noon on Friday through noon on Monday and are restricted to the same rules as yard signs.


Prohibited Signs

The new ordinance also identifies several prohibited sign types, most of which were carried over from the old regulations:

  • Moving or windblown signs, such as feather signs or inflatable signs.
  • Signs that have flashing or intermittent lights that do not conform to the regulations for electronic display signs.
  • Roof signs.
  • Any sign that obstructs visibility at a corner or intersection.

For more information or questions about the new zoning rules for signs, contact the Department of Planning and Zoning’s Zoning Administration Division at 703-324-1314, TTY 711, or by email.

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