Town Puts the Squeeze on Merchant Signs

Town wanted to ban these signs . . .

Town officials wanted to ban these signs next to the Coffee House on Mason Avenue . . .

. . . but the new 20-page ordinance goes a lot further, including restricting the Town's own new Harbor advertising.

. . . but the new 20-page ordinance goes a lot further, including restricting the Town’s own new Harbor advertising.

Cape Charles Wave

December 23, 2013

Cape Charles Town Council enacted a tough new sign ordinance December 19 that appears to place a number of local merchants, especially real estate agents, in violation of the law.

“This ordinance does not attempt to regulate what messages can be placed on signs, as that is a matter of free speech,” Town Planner Rob Testerman told Town Council. But the new 20-page ordinance (the old ordinance was 5 pages) goes into great detail about what messages can and cannot be on signs:

Another example of

Another “development complex sign” — or is it a “billboard”? Either way, it doesn’t appear to meet the new Town sign ordinance.

Signs posted inside storefront windows are limited to “advertising weekly specials or special services offered for a limited time by a business establishment.” This appears to be aimed at the storefront adjacent to the Cape Charles Coffee House,
which typically features signs protesting Town Council’s sale of the Old School in Central Park. (The signs have been replaced with Christmas greetings during the holiday season.) Signs inside store windows “shall not exceed 25 percent of the window area on which such signs are displayed,” which catches the large “Don’t Answer That” shown above. But it also catches the sign in the door of Brown Dog Ice Cream.


“Development complex signs,” such as have recently been erected at the entrances to the Town Harbor and to Aqua Restaurant and Kings Creek Marina, appear to be in violation. According to the new ordinance, “no business identification shall be permitted on a development complex sign.”

One house + two signs = violation

One house + two signs = violation

Other restrictions on merchants include:

This 16-square-foot sign is four times the new allowed size.

This 16-square-foot sign is four times the new allowed size.

Real Estate Signs: Maximum one sign per residential lot. For example, the house at the corner of Strawberry and Tazewell has a For Sale sign on each street. Signs also are limited to 4 square feet, the typical size of a For Sale sign, but when agents add their name, or “Under Contract” at the top, the sign becomes too big.

Sandwich Boards: These are allowed on sidewalks during business hours only, but now are limited to one such sign per business. Strawberry Street merchants are the biggest users of these signs in an effort to draw customers along Mason Avenue. Strawberry Street merchants have been positioning as many as three sandwich boards per business –- one at Mason Avenue, one at Randolph Avenue, and one in front of the business.

Merchants are now limited to one sandwich sign on the sidewalk.

Merchants are now limited to one sandwich sign on the sidewalk.

Political Signs: Campaign signs are permitted only for 45 days preceding an election and must be removed within seven days thereafter. This provision remains despite Planning Commissioner Dan Burke’s protestation that limitations on political signs have repeatedly been struck down by courts.

Obsolete Signs: Any sign “that no longer advertises or identifies a use conducted on the property” is a violation. An example is the Old Firehouse sign on Peach Street.

The ordinance does not stop with signs, but also includes “strings of lights solely for the purpose of illumination, except when displayed as decorations during the holiday seasons.” That would appear to ban the summer lights at Bay Haven Inn (unless summer is defined as a “holiday season”).

The catalyst for the sign crackdown may have been the protest signs that proliferated a year and a half ago surrounding the proposed sale of the Old School. At the time, Town Council member and Planning Commissioner Joan Natali and then-Town Planner Tom Bonadeo were accused of removing signs they judged to be illegal. Under the old sign ordinance, Town officials had no authority to remove a sign. The new ordinance empowers the new Town Planner (Testerman) to remove signs at owners’ expense without a court order. Unclaimed signs will be destroyed after 30 days.

But while the origins of the stringent new sign ordinance may have been in reaction to protesters, the finished product, if enforced, will have a much larger impact on Town merchants. Testerman now must choose between trying to enforce the new regulations or ignoring them. If he decides to bear down on some signs but not others, he could be accused of selective enforcement, which violates the State Constitution. One way the Town has dealt with this in the past is to only act when someone files a complaint.

Click here to read the 20-page sign ordinance. Although labeled “draft,” it became law December 19.

One sign, however, appears to have escaped regulation: “PRAYER: America’s Only Hope.” (Unless Testerman rules that it requires a sign permit.)

Safe for now (All photos: Cape Charles Wave)

Safe for now? (All photos Cape Charles Wave)



11 Responses to “Town Puts the Squeeze on Merchant Signs”

  1. Antonio Sacco on December 22nd, 2013 11:26 pm

    I am in agreement with Council on this one. Cape Charles is on the move to become a world attraction; those signs that are talked about are a black eye and should be removed — they only cheapen the beautiful Town of Cape Charles.

    We are not a Third World community — the problem with our County is we lose our brightest people due to lack of jobs, and what is left behind are unrealistic no talented groups preserving us always as the poorest county in Virginia just to protect their own selfish interests. Who are you of Cape Charles keeping the Town Council trying to make it a beautiful town for all of us — we should all join the Council in bringing Cape Charles into the 21st century for the value of all of us.

  2. Dana Lascu on December 23rd, 2013 12:49 am

    The Strawberry Street signs are important consumer traffic drivers, essential to businesses located off Mason. This is a short-sighted Procustian ordinance that businesses and law enforcement should disregard.

  3. Gabriel Southern on December 23rd, 2013 3:39 am

    Regarding the “political signs,” it appears that the Town needs to get better legal advice, because if someone spent 5 minutes searching on Google they probably would have found the following from the Code of Virginia:

    Ҥ 15.2-109. Regulations on political campaign signs.

    No locality shall have the authority to prohibit the display of political campaign signs on private property if the signs are in compliance with zoning and right-of-way restrictions applicable to temporary nonpolitical signs, if the signs have been posted with the permission of the owner. The provisions of this section shall supersede the provisions of any local ordinance or regulation in conflict with this section. This section shall have no effect upon the regulations of the Virginia Department of Transportation.”

  4. Wayne Creed on December 23rd, 2013 10:02 am

    If the political signs are a black eye to Cape Charles, it is only because they are exposing it as a fake and a fraud. All the scented candles, worthless knick knacks and droning cable television shows in the world can’t begin to cover up, as Hamlet noted, “a certain convocation of politic worms . . . fat kings and lean beggars are but two dishes . . . for maggots.” Hardly a black eye, these signs are a badge of honor worn by those willing to leverage the Constitution to help protect ordinary people against the abuse of power by those in authority — the only way the abusers can succeed is by limiting access to the Constitution. It’s obvious that this is not an aesthetic argument, but a brown shirted attempt by the bosses to curtail free speech. They seem to feel their will to power is power with impunity, but they are wrong. As Gabriel Southern aptly pointed out, the ability of free citizens to challenge and expose the arbitrary abuse of power is guaranteed. My holiday wish is that they will be dragged back into court, Class Action, by the ordinary people, and be forced to explain themselves. That is, of course, before we throw them out this spring.

    What say ye, Tiny Tim? “A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!”

  5. Susan Bauer on December 23rd, 2013 7:11 pm

    The Supreme Court characterized political signs as “a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important.” Nevertheless, municipalities may create “content neutral” regulations that govern “time, place and manner” of posting signs, particularly in commercial/business areas, as opposed to private front yards. The legitimacy of the Town’s draft sign regulation warrants further inquiry. I suspect that’s why it’s characterized as a “draft.” The new rule, or perhaps even just a portion of it, may be an unwarranted restriction on free speech, but I doubt a cursory Google search, and reliance on a portion of a Virginia statute, provides a definitive answer. Such an analysis is like searching the Internet to diagnose a headache, and concluding one must have a brain tumor.

    (Town Council voted the draft sign ordinance into law December 19. — EDITOR)

  6. Deborah Bender on December 24th, 2013 6:50 am

    The people running this Town are so bent on stopping anyone from saying anything against what they want. Let’s call a spade a spade, folks. This new law is to restrict Frank Wendell from putting signs in his windows that speak out against the Town Council’s actions.

  7. Mary Finney on December 24th, 2013 8:09 am

    This latest infringement on freedom by the ruling tyrants of Cape Charles is (almost ) funny in its pettiness. One would have to be really dim (or delusional) to not realize that this new signage law was pointed at the Old School Cape Charles messages. Obviously the Town administrators had a little temper tantrum, and viola! New sign laws! Take that, all you rabble-rousing peasants! The only thing more offensive than this sort of brown-shirt governing is the squeaky little voices of those who continue to try to defend and justify it.

  8. Antonio Sacco on December 30th, 2013 12:27 am

    When you call elected officials tyrants that is taking it a bit too far. Are we in a democracy or are we turning into a bunch of thugs with no respect for the law? My country and yours was built on a Constitution and a Bill of Rights and in God We Trust. The ballot box was put there by our earlier fathers for you to exercise your right to elect or replace the current administration. Let the whole world see how our democracy works and not the matter of rebellion such as we are witnessing in the Middle East that sinks the human endeavor into such levels as Dante’s Inferno. Yes I am Tony Sacco from Capevile and not afraid to defend my Country, my State, my People.

  9. Paul Chandler on January 1st, 2014 8:24 pm

    Mr. Creed and Mrs. Bender, I trust we will see your names on the ballot in the Spring?

  10. Antonio Sacco on January 1st, 2014 11:36 pm

    Using the ballot box to get involved is the right way to make change, not the streets as a pulpit. Mr. Creed & Mrs. Bender, go for it.

  11. David Thornes on January 2nd, 2014 8:27 am

    As a merchant in Cape Charles Harbor I find this new rule good and bad. They need to re-think this. I paid good, hard-earned money to advertise on the Town’s own Harbor Sign — now I find out that I may lose it. As a small business owner all I can see is the Town government trying to restrict small business. This sign was erected by the Town, with Harbor funds (Cape Charles funds) to help the buisnesses in the Harbor area. I pay for a slip in the Harbor for my fishing charter boat and was excited to have the advertisement for the traveling public that takes in the beauty of the area. Well, Oyster Harbor is less expensive and is looking better and better each year.

    Lt. David Thornes, Lt. Fishing and Tour Charters. &