Remember that old Ace of Base song, “I Saw the Sign,” where the lyrics go, “I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes… ?”
That could be Rappahannock County’s updated theme song, as people here are going bonkers about a new outdoor sign that the Amissville Volunteer Fire and Rescue company installed without a permit on its front lawn.
AVFR has explained that the new sign replaces the drab old sign, although there’s not much similarity. The new one’s more snazzy — with the kind of bright LED lights you can probably see from space on dark skies nights. Indeed, the lights and words would animate and change colors if the county would let the SVFR sign do what it was born to do.
A county’s sign ordinance doesn’t seem like a topic to get all hot and bothered about. But here in Rappahannock County, as witnessed several times during the last year, in certain circles it seems like the end of the world.
Some contend the AVFR sign is illegal, others say it could be made legal, and still others present the confusing logic that it’s OK if the fire department doesn’t follow code because they risk their lives for the rest of us.
Here’s how this latest sign fiasco began. In April 2018, the Rappahannock County Planning Commission voted 6 to 1 to hold a public hearing about whether the county’s volunteer fire departments should be exempt from the sign zoning ordinance. (This was due to a discussion before the Board of Supervisors in December 2017.)
The Planning Commission never held that public hearing. This newspaper emailed the chair of the Planning Commission Gary Light and member Rick Kohler to ask why but never heard back.
It was assumed that the Amissville VFR had grown tired of the Planning Commission dragging its feet. Bottom line: their existing sign was old and they want to replace it. Then we heard from someone in the know that the fire company did not bug the Planning Commission for a hearing.
And now this week Chairman Light tells the News: “As I recall, AVFR withdrew its request for the exemption before the hearing was scheduled, however I don't have any record of a formal withdrawal… In any event, yours is the first inquiry I have received about this since the April 2018 PC meeting, so that leads me to believe everyone involved understood the reason the matter was dropped at that time.”
Could it have been that the fire department didn’t know in the first place it needed a permit to install the new snazzy sign?
In an interview with this newspaper, Zoning Administrator Michelle Somers said she and County Administrator Garrey Curry explained two separate times to two separate AVFR presidents that the fire department would need a special use or special exception permit for its new sign. One major reason: the ordinance states that signs must be illuminated externally and “animated signs” can only animate no more than once an hour.
Curry himself shared with this News an email he wrote, dated November 1, explaining the same thing.
Now that they knew the written rules of Rappahannock County all the AVFR had to do was apply for a special use permit to allow for its illuminated sign. But as Somers and Curry soon found out, the AVFR did not take that simple step.
In fact, the two county officials only heard about the new sign when a contractor called Somers to see what he needed to do in order to further install the sign.
Somers explained to the contractor that the AVFR needed a permit, which perhaps he didn’t understand because the sign had already been installed — sometime around Halloween. Curry said in the Nov. 1 email that he saw the sign himself for the first time while driving Page County officials to a tour of the Amissville dump..
Since then, David Konick, the lawyer for the AVFR, has sent Somers and Curry a 20-page Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information on “all records since the Ordinance was adopted analyzing, discussing, referring to or otherwise relating to any of these particular signs” in a number of categories, followed by pictures of examples from around the county.
Konick also had an offer to make: if the county declared a moratorium on enforcing the sign ordinance (i.e., left his client alone) then he, the lawyer, would withdraw his FOIA request.
Curry tried to explain that a moratorium probably would be unconstitutional because of the Supreme Court case “Reed v Town of Gilbert.” Both Curry and Konick mentioned the case, so they do agree on something.
Blame it on communications crossing in email, but Somers sent a Notice of Violation (NOV) to the AVFR, saying at the same time that she would drop the NOV if the fire company applied for a permit before the end of the week — 4:30 p.m., Nov. 22, to be exact.
Piece of cake, right?
Not in Rappahannock County. Konick dropped his offer to drop the FOIA request. The Notice of Violation still stands. And county staff are busy as we speak photocopying FOIA-requested records.
Curry says that if the cost of staff time and copying to fulfill Konick’s request runs over $200, the lawyer will be charged.
And the unapproved sign still lights the county.