Planning Commission Votes for Free Speech

Planning Commission Votes for Free Speech

Aesthetics and free speech collided head-on at the October meeting of the Alexandria Planning Commission. The causal factor was candidates’ political signs.

As explained in the staff report to the Commission, "After last May's election, City Council has been discussing whether there are ways to reduce the visual clutter that results from the city's current regulation on political signs and has asked staff to bring forward for the Planning Commission's consideration certain changes to those rules."

Currently, city regulations say signs are permitted only in the grass portions of rights of way. Each sign must be freestanding and no taller than 42 inches, and each sign may be supported by no more than two small posts.

Regulations also stipulate that no signs are permitted on the G.W. Parkway, which includes Washington Street, and no signs are permitted within 15 feet of an intersection or at the end of a median strip.

City regulations are clear that signs are not permitted on traffic islands, and signs are permitted only 90 days before an election and must be removed within 15 days after the election. There is no limitation of signs on personal property.

THE STAFF members’ recommendation to the Commission was a considered text amendment to that section of the zoning ordinance based on their evaluation that "consideration of changes is consistent with the public necessity, convenience, general welfare and good zoning practice." The Commission and public speakers saw it differently.

"It's part of the democratic process to do this," Katy Canady explained. "I saw all these signs there, but so what? When you place visual clutter against free speech, it's very insignificant."

Poul Hertel pointed out, "We already have a very low voter turnout. We should not discourage interest further. Don't change the regulations."

Lillian White, president of the local League of Women Voters, agreed. "We feel displaying the signs encourages voters. Political signs are protected free speech. The city has no business trying to interfere with this," she said.

According to memoranda from Eileen Fogarty, director, Department of Planning and Zoning, to Philip Sunderland, city manager, on May 8, 2003, the same arguments were aired by both the Planning Commission and City Council in 1997 and 1998. The ordinance remained unchanged.

At that time, the Planning Commission recommended a change only in the bond from $100 to $250. If the signs were not removed within the 15-day time span, the bond would be forfeited.

That was the same conclusion the Commission came to on Oct. 7, 2003. Following a clarification by Barbara Ross, deputy director, Planning and Zoning, that the department was "not asking for an ordinance tonight, but only asking [the Commission] to consider the various alternatives ."

After deliberation, the Commissioners did just that. The resolution was supported only for an increase in the bond from $100 to $250 and removal of the sign posts as well as the signs themselves within the 15-day time frame. It was approved unanimously.

IN OTHER ACTIONS, the Commission:

*Approved a Special Use Permit (SUP) to operate a massage therapy establishment at 818 Franklin St. The hours of operation will be Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. The applicant, Calvin Boothe, is a new owner of the building, according to the staff report. Boothe most recently operated his business, called Alexandria Bodyworks, at 728 Jefferson St., staff noted. That site is now part of a proposed residential development at 800 Washington St.

*Approved an SUP requested by Baptist Temple Church to expand its Abracadabra Child Care Center at 6 West Masonic View Ave. The request centered on expansion of the playground area and the enrollment by three. The playground presently is approximately 2,429 square feet. The proposal is to expand it to approximately 6,383 square feet. The maximum enrollment now stands at 38. This would be increased to 41.

*Approved a recommendation by the Department of Planning and Zoning to allow increased height and density for public schools. They found that the consideration of such a text amendment is consistent with the public necessity, convenience, general welfare, and good zoning practice.