COUNTY OF ALBEMARLE
Removal of Signs in VDOT Right of Way
Alternatives for removing illegal signs in right of way
Messrs. Tucker, Foley, Davis, Kamptner, Graham,
and Ms. McCulley
LEGAL REVIEW: Yes
August 3, 2005
ACTION: X INFORMATION:
This executive summary presents alternative strategies for reducing the number of illegal signs placed in public rights of way. While removal of these signs is a VDOT responsibility, the question is whether the County can effectively improve the removal of these signs. Signs, typically of a temporary nature, erected along our roadways not only contribute to visual clutter but also negatively impact the scenic quality of the County. These are often numerous "popsicle signs" advertising a product or service which are erected on weekends along major roads. These signs can also include real estate "For Sale" signs made of a permanent material. This proliferation of signs and difficulty in removal is a common problem for localities throughout the Commonwealth. Removal of signs reduces the visual clutter and is expected to discourage the continued use of these signs.
Provide effective and efficient County services to the public
Staff has discussed this issue with Jim Utterback, the Charlottesville Resident Administrator. VDOT does remove many of these signs as part of regular operations, but does not have work teams responsible for removal of signs. Signs are routinely removed when found to block sight distance, preparation for mowing, and similar operations. The authority to deal with this issue has been primarily given to VDOT rather than to local governments. Through Virginia Code Section 33.1-373, VDOT has authority to remove all the signs from the right of way, recover the costs of the removal, and to impose a $100 civil fine for each sign. There is a rebuttable presumption that the sign was placed by the entity the sign advertises. This presumption allows VDOT to prosecute in a civil process without having to catch the offenders in the act of placing the signs. The local VDOT office does not aggressively seek costs or fines for these violations and believes the effort required to collect the costs and fines would often exceed the amounts that could be collected.
After discussing this issue with Jim Utterback, it appears the County would need to supplement VDOT’s effort to improve removal. Based on the experience of other counties, the Albemarle could be authorized to provide this service for VDOT. Virginia Code Section 33.1-375.1 enables VDOT to enter into agreements with local governments to authorize the local governments to act as agents for VDOT to remove the signs. However, any fines collected are required by state law to be paid into the Highway Maintenance and Operating Fund. Below are several options to address this issue which could stand alone or be combined:
1. The County could contract for the removal of these signs. This would be similar to VDOT’s mowing contractors removing these signs prior to mowing. The cost of such a program has not been
thoroughly explored, but it appears there could be opportunities to use the same contractors as currently providing litter removal for VDOT.
2. The County could direct staff to perform this function. This would require changing priorities for other services and could result in some reduction in current service levels. While zoning and building inspectors are already in the field, Community Development would recommend against utilizing inspectors for sign removal. Their current workload can already result in lengthy response times for violation investigations and our ability to assure next-day inspections would be put at risk if staff resources were diverted to this program.
3. The County could pay staff overtime to provide this as a supplemental service. This would potentially increase cost, but could provide a reasonable method of experimenting with effectiveness over several months. Additionally, there would be the need to train staff on identifying limits of the public right of way and confrontation training for situations where the business owner finds staff removing their signs.
4. The County could continue to rely on VDOT and use a public education campaign to make violators aware of the current laws and of the possibility that VDOT could fine them for violations.
For alternatives 1-3, it is staff’s opinion that removal would need to occur every week or every other week to maintain effectiveness. Additionally, it is believed it would be more effective to remove signs at the beginning of weekends soon after they are usually erected. With these strategies, staff believes it is important for the Board to recognize this program is potentially controversial. Staff anticipates confrontations with business owners whose signs are removed, but believes that confrontation may also come from residents whose signs for garage sales, political candidates, and lost pets are also removed. Some of the challenges inherent in a sign removal program in addition to the question regarding the frequency of removal are:
A. It is often difficult to determine the edge of right of way. It changes in width on any given road and is rarely marked.
B. Deciding which roadways will be patrolled is important. For example, would staff focus on the entrance corridors or expand onto other streets?
C. Would staff dispose of all signs? For example, some metal real estate signs are relatively expensive. If we don't dispose of all signs, then we need a process for storage and retrieval by the owner.
D. It is not recommended that removal criteria be based on the content of the sign. There could be public backlash for the removal of signs advertising political candidates, garage sales, lost pets, etc.
E. Because the cost of the “popsicle” retail signs is relatively low, removal may not prevent the erection of future signs. This could lead to the need for enforcement action, which is believed to be a much more extensive time and process commitment.
If option 3 were used, the budget impact of funding a team of inspectors to do this once a week for three months is estimated at $7,500. As discussed above, the cost of using VDOT’s contractors has not been thoroughly investigated, but would likely require a similar budget. While the County might recover some of its costs through VDOT, both staff and VDOT recommend against pursuing enforcement due to the extensive and costly time involved in an enforcement process. It is believed option 4 could be done at a relatively low cost by appealing directly to businesses as well as professional groups (e.g. Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors).
If the Board is interested in supplementing VDOT’s effort, staff would recommend a phased approach. The first phase would use option 4; emphasizing public education regarding the law and that visual clutter is unacceptable. After three months, staff would report back to the Board on the effectiveness of this effort. At that time, the Board could decide if it desires to accelerate removal through contracting the service with VDOT or overtime for staff.
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