This story was clarified on March 11, 2013.
Weather and time permitting, when Lake Barcroft resident Kathryn Cooper sees roadside placards for furniture discounters, dog walking services or “we buy used cars” offers, she pulls over her car, parks and rips the illegal signs from their mud-grass roots.
The same goes for signs hawking manicures, SAT-prep programs or home-based business opportunities guaranteeing thousands of dollars in easy income.
Cooper holds a permit from the Virginia Department of Transportation to remove signs from part of Route 7 in the Seven Corners area. She hopes that by quickly removing illegal signs, she can discourage others from planting their placard advertisements.
“I carry trash bags, gloves, my VDOT vest, and my permit with me so that I am equipped to remove litter and signs from my permit area only whenever I can,” she said.
Cooper and a friend, who both live in the Mason District of Fairfax County, maintain a strip of Route 7 in the Seven Corners area between Sleep Hollow Road and Nevius Street, which they are permitted to do through the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Adopt-a-Highway program. The pair estimate they have collected 500 to 1,000 illegal placards.
The two women record their roadside findings on a spreadsheet, which they submit to the Virginia Department of Transportation. VDOT is allowed to fine businesses or individuals $100 per illegal sign.
Cooper said, however, this is rarely done, even with the evidence they have gathered. VDOT has told the pair that budget cuts over the past five years have limited the transportation authority’s ability to enforce such a large-scale problem.
“People are going to keep doing it unless they are actually penalized,” Cooper said. “[We] approached someone [planting a sign] and told them it was illegal and asked, ‘Why are they doing this?’ and they said, ‘Everybody is doing it.’”
VDOT said only in the last six months has it begun to enforce illegal sign laws in the state. Only a handful of citations have been issued, according to the department.
After removing signs, VDOT gives sign owners 30 days to collect them; however, a spokeswoman for VDOT said this period will likely be dropped to seven days in Fairfax County because of the volume of signs.
In her 40 years as a county resident, Cooper said, the volume of illegal placards advertising business ventures and the growing piles of litter have become an epidemic, an uphill battle for those trying to keep their neighborhoods clean.
“The littering and the signs and the loitering is a symptom of the rottenness we have here of not maintaining business and property,” Cooper said. “There’s no pride.”
Residents in the Mason, Lee, Providence and Mount Vernon districts of Fairfax County say they are embarrassed by the high volume of litter and illegal placards along roadsides in their communities. Neighborhood cleanup campaigns have had some impact, but residents say the volume of fast-food wrappers, plastic bags and bottles, discarded furniture and illegal signs means one Saturday’s cleanup is often undone by a new wave of debris before the next weekend.
Mason District Council Chairwoman and Park Lawn Civic Association President Mollie Loeffler said her community has organized cleanup efforts for two years.
“They just aren’t able to keep up,” she said. “Several of our district councils [like the Mason District Council] went to the Board of Supervisors last Tuesday, actually, to complain about the litter… If I was in charge of this area, I’d be embarrassed.”
Residents are asking the Board of Supervisors to include litter cleanup in a county campaign to remove illegal signs.
On Feb. 26, the Board of Supervisors entered an agreement with the state’s Commissioner of Highways to create a county-run system for removing illegal signs from public rights-of-way. Supervisors and county staff are in the process of finalizing these plans, including details on providing a workforce to pick up signs.
“What is being proposed is the county labor force, which is overseen by the Sheriff’s Office,… would go out on Tuesdays and Fridays to collect signs,” county spokesman Brian Worthy said. “We’re not ready to start the program yet, but we’re hoping to start soon.”
Some residents said they would like volunteer groups to be allowed to remove signs as needed.
Fairfax County’s board referred to the discontinuation of a Loudoun County volunteer sign-removal campaign as one reason not to use volunteers.
“We first did it in 2009. We started off with a volunteer program,” Loudoun County Zoning Enforcement Program Manager Keith Fairfax said. “That was ended in January 2012… It was an issue where the current board didn’t think it was safe.”
The safety concern was having volunteers cleaning along roads as cars passed at more than 40 miles an hour, Fairfax said. When the volunteer program ended in Loudoun, there were discussions on using local inmates, overseen by the Sheriff’s Office, similar to a proposal under consideration in Fairfax County.
“We looked at that too, but it was a liability issue,” Fairfax said.
Volunteers in Loudoun removed about 70,000 signs from that county’s roadways. Today, illegal signs are removed in Loudoun by county staff, which goes out once a week to target areas where they have heard complaints from residents.
Not all roadside placards are illegal.
“State law allows certain kinds of signs in rights-of-way between Saturday and Monday,” Worthy said. These allowances include “No trespassing,” Red Cross station directional signs, church service notices and special events announcements.
The Board of Supervisors’ illegal-sign pickup campaign represents progress, residents said.
“To see the signs and litter really doesn’t speak to the future we’re hoping for,” said Chris Soule, president of Jefferson Manor Civic Association. “[Drive] anywhere on Route 1 and you can’t miss it… It’s on every telephone poll, every median strip.
“You could put a map [of Fairfax County] on a dartboard and pretty much anywhere you’d hit, you’d find a problem.”
Still, the county sign-pickup program will not address growing concerns on litter.
“We’re not getting any help from the supervisors... Our business district looks like a third-world country,” Loeffler said. “[Litter] sends a negative message about our neighborhood. It makes it look like no one cares. It’s embarrassing.”
The Mason District Council’s website lists a schedule of communitywide cleanup events in March and April. To view this list, visit www.MasonDistrict.org and click on the “District-Wide Clean Up!” tab in the left-side tool bar.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not make it clear that Kathryn Cooper has a Virginia Department of Transportation permit to remove illegal signs. Also, more information about VDOT’s sign enforcement and the Mason District Council has been added to the story.