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The Message is not the Median: Fairfax Roadsides Now Free of Political Speech

New law cracks down on political signs in public rights of way; $100 fine for violators.

These signs, which can be seen all over Alexandria, are now almost nonexistent in the public right-of-way in Fairfax County.

These signs, which can be seen all over Alexandria, are now almost nonexistent in the public right-of-way in Fairfax County.

Here’s a sign of the times for campaign 2012 — the roadsides in Fairfax County are almost completely free of political speech.

For many years, the growing number of placards for candidates has outraged neighborhood residents across Fairfax County. But unlike Prince William County, which has an agreement with the Virginia Department of Transportation that allows the local government to collect the signs and fine violators, Fairfax was caught in a bind. Part of the Virginia code made it illegal for the county to remove the signs in Fairfax County until after an election.

Until now.

Earlier this year, Del. David Albo (R-42) introduced House Bill 34. The legislation amended Virginia law specific to Fairfax County, allowing the commissioner of highways to enter into an agreement with the Board of Supervisors. Instead of waiting for the Virginia Department of Transportation to enforce the law against signs in the medians, the new law allows Fairfax County to enter into an agreement similar to the one that already exists in Prince William allowing the local government to collect the signs and issue a $100 fine for each violation.

“Once you do it a couple of times, then nobody does it anymore,” said Albo. “Politicians are running to write laws, and they don’t want to break them.”

LAST YEAR was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Albo, he said, as the General Assembly campaign produced an outrageous number of signs. Because two different attorneys general issued conflicting opinions about whether or not political signs constituted free speech, Albo said, candidates could argue the practice was legal. Albo’s bill this year ended that ambiguity, clarifying the law even as it gave new authority to Fairfax County.

“This is something that has bothered people for a number of years,” said Springfield Supervisor Pat Herrity. “The county has tried before to address it, but we’ve clearly got it addressed this time.”

As Election Day draws closer, partisans on both sides have lodged allegations about specific candidates using public spaces illegally. Don’t expect Fairfax County to be out enforcing the new law this year, though, because the Board of Supervisors has yet to enter into an agreement with VDOT. That means that the signs may technically be illegal, but nobody will be collecting the signs and fining violators until an agreement is reach. Many say it’s long overdue.

“This sounds like a solution to the problem,” said Robert Reynolds, who lives in Riverside Estates. “So many times nobody ever comes to pick them up, and the signs become litter.”

LATER THIS YEAR, Fairfax County staff is expected to issue a report on moving forward. Ultimately, Herrity hopes, the county will be able to create a memorandum of understanding with VDOT. By this time next year, Fairfax County may be issuing $100 fines for General Assembly candidates.

“When I see a political sign, to me that’s an anti-advertisement,” said Albo. “Here’s a person who is running to write laws, and they are purposefully violating laws.”