HARRISONBURG — Only five people showed up to Wednesday’s panel discussion on the proposed ordinance revisions that affect the permitted size, height and placement of all signs in the city.
Some of the attendees included Curtis Joiner, Cody Hartman and Bob Runion, all from Eddie Edwards Signs.
The panel included Adam Fletcher, the Harrisonburg director of planning and community development; Alison Banks, planning and zoning administrator; Rachel Drescher, zoning and planning specialist; Assistant Director of Planning and Community Development Thanh Dang; Frank Hopkins, zoning inspector; and assistant city attorney Wesley Russ.
City staff have been working on the revisions for more than two years and reviewed the current sign ordinance to remove content-based language while also adjusting the ordinance to be more reader-friendly, provide opportunities for temporary signage and change penalties for illegal signage for criminal to civil, according to city documents.
The new sign ordinance comes from a result of the U.S. Supreme Court determination in 1996 on the Reed v. Town of Gilbert that governments cannot place restrictions on signs solely based on content.
The first public input session on the topic was held Jan. 17, followed by a public comment period that ended Jan. 31.
According to the city zoning ordinance draft, a comprehensive sign plan is a plan permitting otherwise prohibited off-premises wall, projecting or freestanding signage. The plan shall be reviewed administratively and either approved or denied with explanation of why the sign plan was denied within 20 business days from the receipt of the application.
The sign ordinance is now contained in Harrisonburg’s building code, but the proposal would move it to the zoning ordinance.
With the new ordinance, the procedure to obtain approval or an appeal for a sign would be an administrative process rather than an applicant being required to go through City Council, which, according to Fletcher, will shorten the amount of time people must spend on getting permits.
The civil penalties for illegal signage are $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second offense and $500 fir every subsequent offense.
One of the questions asked was regarding signs for parcels with no street frontage.
Joiner asked the panel “if the lot that doesn’t have street frontage is 100 feet long and the lot that does have street frontage is only 90 feet long- the guy that doesn’t have the street frontage — his sign cannot exceed 90 square-feet?”
Fletcher said Joiner is correct. There could be two 90-square-foot signs in the front.
“We weren’t trying to give someone who didn’t have public street frontage more signage than the person who does have public street frontage,” Fletcher said. “But in no instance would they be able to go larger.”
Another topic was regarding basement signs.
According to the draft, wall signs must be limited to uses on the first and second floors of a building: Awning, canopy and marquee.
For basement businesses, if it doesn’t have a wall to put a sign on, the property owner must do a comprehensive sign plan for the building to allow it to have signage on the wall that it doesn’t occupy.
Fletcher said that to be considered a basement, more than half of the space must be underground. If there is a walk-out, it’s not a basement. Fletcher also recommended that the wording be changed in the draft regarding the signs being limited to the first and second floor because it is focused more on basements.
Drescher said that for any sign that has been permitted right now, once the ordinance is put in place and it doesn’t follow the new ordinance, it will be considered nonconforming but still legal.
“We aren’t going to make anyone remove any sort of signage that has been permitted,” she said, adding that if in the future the person wanted to update signage or change the sign, they would have to conform with the ordinance.
At the end of the meeting, Runion, who was at the January meeting, said he has appreciated city staff and all they have done to work with businesses on the sign ordinance changes.
“I appreciate city staff being so easy to work with,” he said. “When we have an issue, we can come to you and it gets resolved and I just really appreciate that.”
Staff will continue to work on the draft, but there is no proposed finish date.
Dang said there is no date for when the draft will go to Planning Commission or City Council.
Information regarding the proposed sign ordinance and panel discussion can be found at www.HarrisonburgVA.gov/sign-ordinance-update.
Comments on the proposed sign ordinance will be accepted until Sept. 27 and can be submitted by emailing Rachel.Drescher@HarrisonburgVA.gov.