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Fairfax County updates zoning rules to allow brighter outdoor signs

An office building in Tysons displays a U.S. flag on an electronic sign (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Electronic signs on display at eligible businesses, schools and other establishments can now shine brighter at night.

In planned, commercial and industrial zoning districts within Fairfax County, electronic display signs can now reach brightness levels of up to 300 nits at night, compared to 100 nits previously.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the change to the county zoning ordinance after a public hearing at its Nov. 21 meeting.

“Nits” indicate an object’s brightness. Common cellphones, televisions and computer monitors have nit levels between 250 and 600, according to a county staff report. Under existing county rules, a lot has a designated amount of “freestanding sign area” and may have one electronic display sign that uses up to 50% of that area.

“During outreach on this amendment, we did receive feedback from industry that modern screens are getting brighter, including the widespread use of LED technology,” said Casey Judge with the county’s Department of Planning and Development.

Feedback and research led to county staff’s recommendation to increase the maximum brightness, Judge said.

In residential districts, the maximum nit level will remain 100 nits at night. The 100-nit limit will also apply to any electronic display signs visible to a single-family dwelling within 150 feet of the property with the sign.

Staff had recommended increasing the maximum nit level to 500 nits in planned, commercial and industrial areas in an Oct. 3 report. However, the Fairfax County Planning Commission recommended the ultimately approved 300-nit maximum and the 100-nit maximum for signs located near single-family homes, Judge said.

“I’m not sure 150 feet is the right number, but I think this is one of those things, over time, we’ll probably be getting feedback if it’s too short,” Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn said.

Three community members spoke during the public hearing. Kenny Peskin, a McLean resident who identified himself as an employee of the International Sign Association, said he was “generally in support of the motion,” in particular the version in the staff report with the higher nit limit.

Eileen Kragie, founder of an organization called Dark Sky Friends that advocates against light pollution, spoke against artificial light at night, but called the work “a credible first cut for the electronic signage ordinance.”

Jennifer Falcone called in on behalf of the Great Falls Citizens Association, reporting that the board of the association supported the motions adopted by the planning commission.

Changes to the zoning rules for outdoor signs have been in the works for over a year. Staff presented an initial proposal in May that underwent two public hearings with the planning commission.

Other approved changes include combining three sign application processes and permitting illuminated window signs of up to 4 square feet in non-residential locations.

County staff will provide a report on the implementation of the new guidelines within 18 months.

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