Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock), Del. David Bulova (D-37), George Mason University officials and three community representatives attended a private meeting Thursday, Sept. 21, to discuss the issue of a large, animated sign the university recently placed at the northeast corner of Braddock and Sideburn roads.
The public and the media were not invited because of the controversy the issue has generated in recent weeks from news reports and community and local government opposition. Sharon Bulova said the meeting was a step in the right direction and she was happy with GMU’s willingness to meet with its neighbors to address their concerns; however, she is not entirely satisfied with the way things appear at this point. The university agreed to tone down the sign in a letter to Sharon Bulova’s office, Monday, Sept. 25, but moving it is not on the table at this time.
“My first goal was to have it [the sign] moved,” said Sharon Bulova. “That’s something they’re not agreeing to, but I don’t want to give up on that.”
Dan Walsch, a GMU spokesperson, said the university has no comment on what was discussed at the Sept. 21 meeting or negotiated as a result of the meeting.
In the letter to Sharon Bulova’s office, the university did agree to turn the illumination off at 11 p.m., limit the messages to no less than 20 seconds each, and eliminate animation and splash messages.
“They really have made a number of pretty good concessions, however, I do want to take this back to the community leadership so they can see what’s being proposed,” said Sharon Bulova.
THE IMPLEMENTATION of these new practices could end up pleasing the community, said Sharon Bulova, so testing it out might be an option before pursuing further action to have it moved. Since the university is a state school, it does not have to abide by county zoning laws. David Bulova said it does, however, have to abide by the Code of Virginia, of which he said the university appears to be in violation. Section 33.1-369 of the code lists several instances for which signs with running animation and bright lights are not allowed, and lists exceptions only when agreements have been made with the Commonwealth Transportation Commissioner and the United States Department of Transportation.
“They believe they’re exempt from that code because they’re a university; that it doesn’t apply to them,” said Sharon Bulova.
David Bulova said they discussed how the state code does apply to this issue and to what degree the code is applicable. He said he’s arguing, along with the county’s legal staff, that some elements of the Code of Virginia do apply to the GMU sign.
“It’s my job to make sure we’re enforcing the law,” said David Bulova.
Del. Dave Marsden (D-41) was invited to the meeting but did not attend. He said he is concerned about the distraction the sign causes to drivers and also about whether the university is abiding by the law. The county has a ban on signs with advertisements from outside parties, said Marsden, meaning GMU could only advertise news and events about GMU. The university could not sell advertisements for the sign from outside sources under the law. The only problem with that is that county laws do not apply, but an unspoken good-neighbor law should hold some weight, according to Sharon and David Bulova.
“My issue is the fact that there is a lot of text with ever-changing messaging and flashing lights,” said Marsden.
Community members representing three area associations attended the Sept. 21 meeting and presented concerns they have heard from within their communities.
"Our dialogue was very open. ... I think the community voice was heard," said Bruce Wallachy, chairman of the Braddock District Council. "We asked for specific kinds of things they would be willing to do to mitigate the effects of the sign."
Wallachy said a need remains for ongoing discussions with all parties. GMU gave its point of view as to the sign's purpose, while residents were able to give GMU their point of view on why the sign is a nuisance. Wallachy said he realized that avoiding change in the community "is not possible," but a dialogue between all members can help guide the process. Change is something people have to adjust to, he said, so agreeing on aspects of that change are important for future relations between the community and the university.
Sharon Bulova said community members especially oppose the sign because it simply doesn’t fit in with the residential nature of the surrounding community. They also said it’s distracting to motorists and the bright lights are very intrusive to people’s homes. Wallachy agreed that safety concerns have been the most common.
“They stated their desires to see it moved,” said Sharon Bulova.
The university has taken steps toward being good neighbors by not only meeting with local and state officials, but also by providing some adjustments to the way the sign operates. Sharon Bulova said she will report GMU’s offers about the sign at the Tuesday, Oct. 3, GMU-Braddock forum meeting. That meeting is the second part of a three-part meeting between the university, local officials and the community in preparation for the larger GMU-Braddock forum beginning in January. Sharon Bulova said she would ensure the sign does not dominate the discussion at the Oct. 3 meeting, but it will be addressed.
"These are intermediate steps to get to the final solution," said Wallachy. "There's still going to be some dialogue going on."