The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors adopted the new Sign Ordinance on March 19, 2019, with an effective date of March 20, 2019. This amendment included a repeal and replacement of the previous Article 12, Signs, of the Fairfax County Zoning Ordinance.
The new Sign Ordinance includes a rewrite of the previous regulations as well as some new regulation of signs and/or their characteristics in response to the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Reed vs. Town of Gilbert. All regulations have also been reorganized in a more user-friendly format to include graphics, and the regulation of signs in all zoning districts is now more uniform.
What's Inside the New Sign Ordinance?
Although every section of the previous Sign Ordinance was rewritten in some fashion, much of the previous regulations – types of permitted signs, sizes, etc. – were carried forward. However, there were some topical areas for which this approach was not possible due to lack of clarity in the previous provisions, such as those related to minor signs, or lack of any regulation at all prior to the Reed decision, such as the case for digital signs. For this reason, the new Sign Ordinance amendment does include new regulations in these areas.
The new Sign Ordinance is organized into three separate parts.
Part 1, Section 12-100, General Provisions, includes the purpose and intent statement, a section of defined terms, and all applicability and administrative provisions, to include provisions for non-conforming signs. Most importantly, Part 1 includes the sections on minor signs, which were previously referred to as “temporary signs,” as well as a section identifying all prohibited signs. The highlights of Part 1 include:
- Section 12-102, Definitions, a new section of defined terms, with graphics, that will help assist you in determining what type of signs are allowed in the County. Many of the sign types and related terms are defined for the first time.
- Section 12-105, Minor Signs. This section includes regulations for all signs that were previously regulated as “temporary signs.” It is important to know that most minor signs do not need a sign permit and that most do not have a time limit on display. Minor Signs include:
- Yard signs, which are signs that are allowed to be displayed on a residential lot. Each lot developed with a residential use is allowed to display up to 12 square feet of signs. However, no single sign can be more than 4 square feet in size, and the height of any freestanding sign is limited to 4 feet.
- Minor signs allowed for display by non-residential land uses in all zoning districts. These include the typical banners that businesses or non-profits use to advertise products or events. Depending on the road class that the property is located along, 24 to 32 square feet of signs is allowed per lot. However, only two freestanding signs are allowed at one time, with a maximum height of 4 feet.
- Signs displayed in windows of non-residential land uses; and
- A-frame signs for non-residential land uses.
- Section 12-106, Prohibited Signs. This section includes all of the prohibited sign types, which are organized based on general prohibitions, prohibitions based on materials or design, and location. Most of these sign types were prohibited in the previous Sign Ordinance and were simply carried forward. Prohibited Signs include:
- Any sign that does not comply with the new Sign Ordinance;
- Moving or windblown signs such as inflatable characters, balloons, or feather flags;
- Any sign that displays flashing or animated lights;
- Signs placed on the roof of a building;
- Off-premise commercial signs, except that commercial signs can be placed on a residential lot as a yard sign when displayed from noon Friday until noon Monday; and
- Signs that impair traffic.
Part 2, Section 12-200, Sign Regulations by Use and District, includes all of the provisions that establish the amount of permanent building-mounted and freestanding sign area a land use can display. These provisions are organized by Zoning District. In addition, this section explains how to calculate area and any performance standards (such as setbacks and lighting requirements) for allowed signage. The highlights of Part 2 include:
- Sections 12-203 and 12-205, Performance Standards for Signs in Residential, Commercial and Industrials Districts. For the first time, the Sign Ordinance identifies electronic display signs (digital signs), as a permitted sign type in Fairfax County. The sign type is allowed as part of a freestanding sign with the following standards:
- No more than 50% of the allowable sign freestanding sign area can be a digital display. For example, if your freestanding sign is allowed to be 40 square feet in area, then the digital display component of the sign can only be 20 square feet;
- The message or copy of the sign cannot move or change more frequently than once every 8 seconds, and the change must be instantaneous – meaning it cannot scroll, flash, etc.;
- The background of the sign face of the electronic display cannot be white, off-white or yellow in color; and
- The electronic display must include a photo cell to control brightness and must automatically dim at sunset.
Part 3, Section 12-300, Special Approvals, includes all of the options available to modify or waive select provisions of the Sign Ordinance. These modifications can be administrative and completed by County staff, while others require approval of a Special Permit by the Board of Zoning Appeals, approval of a Comprehensive Sign Plan by the Planning Commission, or approval of a Special Exception by the Board of Supervisors. All modifications and waivers were carried forward from the previous Sign Ordinance.
Given that some of the regulations concerning signs have changed, there are some existing signs that may not meet the new regulations. In some cases, these signs are considered to be legal non-conforming uses, or “grandfathered”, and they may remain. When the Board of Supervisors adopted the new Ordinance on March 19, 2019, the following signs were included in the grandfather provisions:
- Permanent building-mounted signs and freestanding signs, approved with a building permit and any required, corresponding sign permit;
- Permanent freestanding signs located on property owned by Fairfax County, the Fairfax County Park Authority or Fairfax County Public Schools;
- Any signs approved by the Board of Supervisors in conjunction with an approved Comprehensive Sign Plan or Special Exception;
- Any signs approved by the Board of Zoning Appeals in conjunction with an approved Special Permit; and
- Electronic Display Signs approved with a building permit and any required, corresponding sign permit - except that such signs must comply with the new performance standards found in Sections 12-203.3. B, C, and D; and Section 12-205.4. B, C and D.
Except as noted above, all other signs, to include all Minor Signs, must conform to the provisions of the new Sign Ordinance.