COMMENTARY: Signs of Confusion


Violation: “Signs shall not exceed 25 percent of the window area on which such signs are displayed.”

Cape Charles Wave

December 24, 2013

Did anyone, other than Cape Charles Town Council member and Planning Commissioner Joan Natali, actually read the new 20-page sign ordinance before voting it into law? Town Planner Rob Testerman says the Town’s attorney reviewed it, but a reader has pointed out that the time restriction on political signs violates Virginia state law.

The new sign ordinance is not only extremely proscriptive – it’s also frustratingly vague. For example:

PERMITS REQUIRED: Unless specifically exempted, a permit must be obtained from the zoning administrator for the erection and maintenance of all signs erected or maintained within this jurisdiction and in accordance with other ordinances of this Jurisdiction.

Does that mean that EVERY sign in town will need a permit? Even temporary signs, such as For Sale signs? The ordinance doesn’t say.

But speaking of permits, there are of course:

PERMIT FEES: Permit fees to erect, alter or relocate a sign shall be in accordance with the fee schedule adopted within this jurisdiction.

No fee schedule is shown.

Do we even know what a “sign” is? Yes, thanks to the ordinance:

SIGN: Any device visible from a public place that displays either commercial or noncommercial messages by means of graphic presentation of alphabetic or pictorial symbols or representations.

So a sign doesn’t even have to contain words. It might be pictures of pumpkins such as were displayed in the windows of the vacant Bi-Lo building on Mason Avenue in October. The signs are gone now, and a good thing, because they are illegal.


VIOLATION: “Pure Sea Glass” banner looks to be well over 25 percent of the window space.

The most restrictive rule in the new ordinance is this one:

WINDOW SIGNS shall be permitted for any nonresidential use in a residential district, and for all commercial and industrial districts, subject to the following limitations:

– Any signs attached to windows or glass walls advertising weekly specials or special services offered for a limited time by a business establishment.

– The aggregate area of all such signs shall not exceed 25 percent of the window area on which such signs are displayed. Window panels separated by muntins or mullions shall be considered as one continuous window area.

One really needs to read this several times before it sinks in. Essentially, it bans all “permanent” signs in storefront windows. Only “weekly specials,” or “limited-time” offers are allowed to be displayed.

But that’s not all – there’s also the size restriction: no more than 25 percent of the window area. [Read more…]