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Political Sign Debate Aired

Planning tables decision.

Once again, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution had to battle the forces of the protectors of beauty. And once again, freedom of speech won. Sort of.

The battle was joined in City Council Chambers during the meeting of the Alexandria Planning Commission Tuesday night. It was triggered by a proposed text amendment to Article IX of the Zoning Ordinance seeking a change to the regulations of political signs.

At the heart of the matter were proposals to limit the time during which signs are allowed to be displayed, restriction of candidate signs locations, restricting the number of signs per candidate, expanding the bond required to cover all political signs, changing the removal rules, make political sign rules easy to understand and ensure traffic safety.

The last four proposals were readily accepted by the Commission. However, the first three brought forth a reaction akin to hitting a beehive with a stick.

Speakers ranging from representatives of both the Democratic and Republican parties to the Alexandria Chapter of The League of Women Voters registered their views. They were joined by a number of citizens who basically told the Commission, "If its not broken, don't fix it."

That was also the sentiment among most of the Commissioners. Their attitude was summarized by Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn, Jr. who, after hearing a variety of arguments against the proposal said, "This has come up a number of times over the last 10 years. Why don't we just bag it."

However, it was decided that the elements of the amended language dealing with the bond, changing the removal rules, making the regulations more understandable, and ensuring traffic safety had merit. The first three elements were viewed as a direct infringement on the First Amendment and a potential stifling of candidate exposure.

THOSE PARAGRAPHS of the amended language proposed the following:

*Limit the time during which signs are allowed prior to an election to 60 days.

*Restrict candidate signs to medians only and designate specific medians where signs are permitted.

*Restrict the number of signs per candidate to two signs per median.

It was numbers two and three that brought forth the beauty arguments, the proposal being interpreted as causing an "unsightly clutter of signs in various medians."

One speaker, Katy Canady, disagreed. "I like the colors of all the signs and don't find them unsightly. They are removed promptly after elections. It's also good to show all the competition. I don't want any elected official to get too comfortable in their seat."

Lillian White, Alexandria Chapter, League of Women Voters, noted, "We are in favor of not restricting political signs. We feel they are a way of encouraging voting."

This was backed by representatives of both political parties. However, Pat Butler of the Democratic Party noted, "Alexandria is only one of three jurisdictions in the state that has regulations addressing political signs."

Commission Chairman Eric Wagner kept asking several speakers what would happen if one candidate literally blanketed a given area, thereby, squeezing out any competition. Butler pointed out that this would be totally impractical due to the expense of signs and the lack of exposure in other areas.

After several attempts to get an answer to his theoretical problem, Wagner was chastised by Dunn for "badgering" the speakers. "Your question seems to be making a statement. If we are going to go to Commission comments I would like to express mine at this time," Dunn said.

LATER IN THE public hearing, Wagner said he had not intended to "badger" speakers, only trying to "tease forth an analysis" of his hypothesis. It was based on his observations of a proliferation of political signs in the medians along Commonwealth Avenue during the last election, he explained.

After a number of questions were raised pertaining to what constitutes a sign, how the number of signs are determined, such as two on one stake, why single out political signs as opposed to real estate and other commercial advertisements, and other matters, the Commissioned voted to defer the matter on a 6-1 vote.

Staff was instructed to rework items four through seven and eliminate the first three paragraphs. The matter will then be brought back to the Commission.

Wagner noted, "Due to the fact we now have a Council totally controlled by one party, I am troubled by the fact that we could be accused of stifling free speech," if anything is done to restrict political signage during an election cycle.

Current political sign rules for elections, according to the staff report, are:

*Signs are only permitted in the grass surface portions of the public-right-of-way,

*Each sign must be freestanding and no taller than 42 inches,

*Each sign may be supported by no more than two small posts,

*No signs are permitted on the GW Parkway which includes Washington Street,

*No signs within 15 feet of an intersection or within 15 feet of the end of a median,

*No signs on traffic channelization islands,

*No signs more than 90 days prior to an election,

*All signs must be removed by the 15th day following an election, unless there is a runoff,

*A $100 bond must be deposited to secure compliance with the 15th day rule.

The new Council proposed the changes at its May 2003 meeting, shortly after its election.

The same subject was the topic of a Planning Commission meeting on May 5, 1998. That City Council voted on May 16,1998, voted to table the matter.

IN OTHER MATTERS, the Commission:

*Approved the addition of outdoor seating for the new Thaipoon of Old Town restaurant at 6 King St. Staff "strongly" supported the request on the analysis the "outdoor seating will add vitality to the street, thereby attracting more visitors and customers for area businesses."

*Approved the development of 11-21 North Quaker Lane for six townhouses proposed by Jade Development Co. The proposal had been originally denied by the Commission but was referred back by City Council after appeal. It was deferred at both the December and January meetings due to concerns about traffic patterns at the intersection of Quaker Lane and Duke Street and the number of residences proposed, at that time eight. Although, several citizens spoke out against the proposal it was approved 6 to 1.

*Approved a Special Use Permit to operate a garden/interior furnishing center at 1503-1505 Mount Vernon Ave. The only concern was potential traffic congestion caused by loading and unloading trucks at the site. Applicant Linda C. Beal assured the Del Ray Civic Association, which supported her application, and the Commissioners, all such activities would be performed at the rear of the establishment with no impact on traffic flow.