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.

Bah humbug -- another illegal sign!

Bah humbug — another illegal sign! (All photos: Cape Charles Wave)


Was this all done to prohibit the protest signs in the windows of the vacant storefront next to the Cape Charles Coffee House? If so, someone forgot that, unfortunately, Cape Charles has many vacant storefronts. The window glass can either be covered with brown paper, or through the efforts of civic-minded volunteers such as Sandy McFall, they can be decorated with artwork (which we now know are “signs”).

One more example of the intrusiveness of the new ordinance:

A business is permitted to hang a sign in a window relating to something within their establishment. A business is not permitted to hang a sign in their window advertising another business.

And just what business is it of the Town if a business wants to hang a sign in its window advertising another business? Suppose a circus were coming to town and asked to post flyers in storefront windows. Sorry – against the law!

The ordinance does contain a grandfather clause, meaning that only newly erected signs have to comply with the law. But with the passage of time, the grandfather clause becomes less important.

Fortunately, human nature being what it is, most people will not be affected by the sign ordinance because they will simply ignore it. Realtors are not likely to file for a permit every time they pound a For Sale sign into the ground, and shopkeepers will mostly remain ignorant of the officious requirements controlling what they post in their windows. If the Council members that voted to approve the 20-page ordinance didn’t even read it, it’s not likely that anyone else will either.

But for those masochists who want to dive in, click here. (Although the text is labeled “draft,” it’s the real thing. Nobody changed a word.)

Submissions to COMMENTARY are welcome on any subject relevant to Cape Charles. Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily of this publication.



3 Responses to “COMMENTARY: Signs of Confusion”

  1. Kearn Schemm on December 24th, 2013 9:22 am

    A town of 900. An ordinance of 20 pages on SIGNAGE alone. The town board should find another historic building to pay someone to take.

  2. Debbie Suddeth on December 25th, 2013 10:36 am

    Crazy …

  3. Chip Moore on December 26th, 2013 12:32 pm

    The town is real smart — try to hurt the small businesses by cutting down on signs or better yet make them pay a fee/permit/TAX so the town has more money to waste! Maybe if the town managers helped the small businesses paint more signs, business might pick up and the town could collect some legit taxes from the small profit that the businesses make. Goverment only knows how to consume, it does not know how to produce anything! Town of Cape Charles, do what you can to help business, not hurt business, and watch your town grow!