John Adams has become a self-professed sign vigilante who takes pleasure and pride in taking down the signs erected by political candidates on public lands in McLean and Great Falls. The McLean Citizens Association (MCA) beat down an attempt by Adams to force the county to obey the law regarding the placement of political signs on rights of way.
“This started because for the last six to eight years several of us have been pulling signs, political signs, on Georgetown Pike. People started saying why don’t we make it countywide,” said Adams.
The resolution sought to make any candidate seeking public office comply with the provisions of Virginia Code Sections 33.1-19 and 33.1-375 prohibiting the posting of political signs within the public highway rights of way within Fairfax County. Further, Adams’ resolution had asked that the Board of Supervisors request that the Fairfax County commonwealth’s attorney prosecute offenders.
The law is already on the books but is simply not enforced with regularity.
THE SIGNS ARE NOT ONLY ILLEGAL but they also create a hazard by obscuring the roadway and, according to the state, cost millions in taxpayer dollars each year to remove them.
In the letter sent to political candidates before an election, Renee Hamilton, maintenance resident engineer with the Department of Transportation for the state, wrote, “Each year, VDOT spends almost $8 million on cleaning rights-of-way. These are funds that could be used for other needs, such as pavement and bridge repairs. Placard signs placed in the right-of-way often end up in ditches and drainage structures, blocking them, and sometimes cause severe erosion that can lead to early roadway failure. Finally, we receive many complaints from the public regarding campaign signs.”
“They are prohibited by state law. Most every politician I’ve talked to knows that they are. Mainly because they get the letter. But they do it because everyone else does,” said Adams.
Though Adams had support and a measure of sympathy from many members of the MCA, he was defeated after several members spoke out about the necessity of name recognition in running a political campaign. “You can’t run a campaign in this area .... without signs to get name recognition,” said John Foust.
NEW MCA MEMBER Mike Clancy said, “I think it’s a good thing we see those signs. It’s important to run a vibrant campaign. The benefit to us is the democracy we live in. [Signs are] a byproduct of it."
Also against the amendment was Wade Smith, who said, “At the end of the day, I think it’s something I can tolerate. In a way, it’s almost a celebration of the political process.”
State Del. Vince Callahan (R-34th) told Adams at a separate meeting that it may be “legally possible” to have deputized sign vigilantes who prowl the area taking down signs. “I would love to not have a single sign up. I didn’t have any last time I ran. But I did run unopposed. I applaud the vigilantes who take them down.”
Taking them down, according to the Dranesville District supervisor’s office, may get you in more trouble than putting them up in the first place. “It’s illegal to remove the illegal signs. You can’t do that,” said Rosemary Ryan from the supervisor's office.
The resolution had support from numerous members of the MCA, especially those heading up committees such as the environment and parks. “The first thing we require of our elected officials is an oath that they will adhere to the laws,” said Frank Crandall, who questioned the logic of breaking the law prior to an election. “Not only is it a right-of-way issue but this is a safety issue. This is a distinct safety issue,” said Crandall.
“This is something that’s always concerned me. Especially when some of these signs get so big you could hide a semi behind them,” said Chris Monek. “One man’s litter is another man's legacy,” added Monek.
OTHER AREAS, SUCH AS Herndon, have altered the law to allow for the political signage. Some members of the organization suggested that the best course of action would be to pursue that, rather than asking the Board of Supervisors to request the commonwealth’s attorney to enforce the rule. “It’s obviously been done in some other place in Fairfax County, so we ought to look into that,” said Monek.
Foust said, “The commonwealth’s attorney is an elected official. I don’t think we should be going to the Board of Supervisors and telling them what to tell the commonwealth’s attorney.”
Adams said the reasoning behind it is that “the request would be more powerfully loaded if it came from the Board of Supervisors.” Dan Smoot said, “Somebody needs to speak up and say it’s gotten way, way out of hand. I get absolutely enraged when I see thousands of them.”
In the end, the resolution was voted down 16-10, with three members abstaining. There is hope that the issue might be taken up again in the future, however. It was decided that an ad hoc committee be assembled to study the issue further.