Wendell Allen had the perfect trees. At a spot within a mile or so of Senator George Allen’s home, anyone driving down the Mount Vernon Memorial Highway must stare directly at the two trunks. So Wendell Allen, 88, and his son Skip put up two Jim Webb signs. They were stolen after two days. In response, the Allens nailed up a four by three foot sign Webb sign mounted on plywood. It was stolen after four days.
On the weekend of Oct. 14, they nailed up an identical Webb sign, increasing its security by ringing it with Christmas lights and setting up a floodlight to illuminate it. They also put up a smaller notice saying that three other signs had already been stolen from the same spot.
The signs stayed up five days, and the Allens believed they were working. They would watch as driver after driver slowed down to look at the signs more closely. But early on Friday morning, Wendell Allen looked out his window and saw that he’d drawn some unwelcome attention. A VDOT utility truck was parked beside the trees, and he said workers with hammers were preparing to take down the signs.
When he angrily approached, Allen was told that the trees may be perfect, but they aren’t his. They are in a VDOT right-of-way.
But Allen, a career employee of the Secret Service, refused to concede his sign. “I told them to get off my property and leave the sign alone.” The workers retreated, leaving the signs untouched.
An hour later, David Shipe, VDOT’s area supervisor, and Howard Akers, a maintenance supervisor, arrived to discuss the situation with Allen. They told Allen the signs were working too well. VDOT was receiving complaints that they were a dangerous distraction on the road that has become an important commuter route for people connecting between the George Washington Parkway and Route 1. But they added that if the workers had removed the sign, they would have placed it on Allen’s property, not destroyed it.
Akers told Allen that VDOT would not allow signs on its trees, and that the lights were a safety issue. “When it becomes a safety issue, then we become involved,” Akers said. “He can put it on state property. I don’t have a problem with that,” Akers added. He offered to use a measuring roller to demarcate the beginning of the VDOT right-of-way, and said that if the sign has been located on Allen’s property, VDOT would not be involved at all.
Akers told Allen he could take the weekend to bring his sign into conformity by removing the lights and propping his sign against the tree. “We’ll come through Monday,” Akers said. “If it’s not removed. We’ll remove it.”
But Allen was noncommittal. “I’ll let all the Webb people, all the authorities know about it,” he replied, “and if they say chop it down, so be it.”
After Allen left, Akers, who said he’s been with VDOT for more than 30 years, said they were trying to find a compromise. “We want to work with him, like I told him,” Akers said. “[But] by being mounted on a tree, in the right of way, with Christmas lights around it, it was a safety issue.”
TOM RUSSELL, OF YACHT HAVEN, a neighborhood off Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, said he was one of the motorists who complained to VDOT. “It really offends me that this guy would take nails and drive them into living trees,” said Russell, who added that he has seen cars slow down to read the signs. “That creates a safety hazard.”
Russell said he has put up many campaign signs for Republican candidates, and supports the right of both parties to erect the signs unmolested. But he added that he always makes sure the signs he posts are set back from the road so they will not distract drivers or obstruct their views.
Scott Surovell, the chairman of the Mount Vernon Democratic Committee, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with VDOT, requesting the identities of the people who complained about the sign. “Number one, I wanted to know who made the complaint. And number two, I wanted to know if VDOT has any real policies about this,” Surovell said.
He said he was troubled that VDOT seemed to be selectively applying its rules. “The state can’t pick whose speech they’re going to squelch and who’s they’re not. Either all the signs go up or they all come down.”
Skip Allen made the same point. “Technically it would make sense to me if there was real strict enforcement all the time, which there isn’t,” he said.
VDOT spokesman Ryan Hall acknowledged that VDOT’s policies on political signs can create confusion. “There’s conflicting laws and rules within the highway section” of the Code of Virginia, he said. The same paragraph that says it’s illegal to post signs in a VDOT right-of-way also says political signs must come down within three days after an election.
Hall said VDOT receives “hundreds of complaints [about political signs], generally from whomever’s sign they don’t like.” But few of these complaints are ever acted upon. “If it’s not posing a safety hazard we generally don’t pull it down.”
Hall said VDOT will remove signs that block driver’s view of other traffic, usually at intersections involving left-hand turns, signs that are attached to road signs, signs mounted to bridges and overpasses (because they might come down into traffic) and possibly signs on large posts driven into the ground.
But he said signs nailed to trees are not something VDOT usually removes unless the factors listed above are involved. As for illuminated signs, Hall said he had never heard of a political sign being lit up. “That’s a new one. I have no idea.”
Hall said there are thousands of illegal signs on the VDOT right-of-ways, but most are left untouched because VDOT simply doesn’t have the manpower. “If it is a safety hazard we’ll put it out. There’s no question. It will go. If it’s not a safety hazard, our folks are busy.” He added that this is particularly true of political signs, which will come down anyway.
And Hall said that regardless of any sign’s legality, it is illegal for anyone to remove it from a VDOT right-of-way unless that person is a VDOT employee or a registered member of an Adopt-A-Highway group. And that person is only allowed to pull signs on his or her particular stretch of road.
HALL EXPLAINED THAT THE COMPLAINTS about Allen’s sign focused on its lighting, not its message. “We don’t want the lighting on the sign. We’ve actually never had that before. We’ve gotten lots of complaints, not because of the sign itself but because it was distracting.”
But he said that “to be good neighbors,” VDOT has modified its requirements for Wendell Allen. It told him to remove the lights from his sign, but will allow him to leave it on the tree.
Skip Allen said that a VDOT supervisor came to his door on Tuesday to tell him of the new policy. Allen said he will leave the light cables attached to the sign as a modest deterrent to the theft or destruction that he fears may be inevitable without the security of illumination at night. But he will keep the switch flipped off. “We’ll leave them on [the sign],” he said. “We’re just not going to put the juice to it.”