New Sign Regs in Fairfax County: The CSP is out and the SE is in!

Navigating the waters of modifying sign regulations in Fairfax County customarily requires a close collaboration between a land-use attorney and a wayfinding consultant. In this article we offer our specialized perspectives on the newly approved sign regulations in a Zoning Ordinance Amendment called Sign Regulations Part II.

Part II? What about Part I? Let’s start from the beginning. In 2019 the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors revisited sign regulations within the Zoning Ordinance as part of considerations for Part 1 of the Amendment. Building upon the adopted content-neutral approach of Part I, an additional comprehensive review of sign policies began in December 2021 which included community outreach and industry group perspectives. With the information collected through these studies, Part II of the Zoning Ordinance Amendment was approved in November 2023. The three major changes included in Part II are the display sign brightness, consolidation of applications to request modified signage, and updated allowances for various sign types.

As we’ve worked on several Comprehensive Sign Plans (CSP) applications together (and separately) before, the focus for this article is to bring additional insight and interpretation to the second of the three major changes in Part II: the consolidation of the comprehensive sign plan (CSP) special exception (SE) and special permit (SP) sign applications requesting sign modifications in Planned, Commercial, and Industrial districts into a unified SE application with specific criteria.

So, the CSP is out and the SE is in…what does that mean? It is really a mixed bag trying to achieve a balance of streamlining and flexibility on one hand and additional processes in some land in development centers on the other.

What this means for Planned districts

For the most part, Fairfax County’s existing and likely future Planned Districts are located within Fairfax County’s identified development centers. Previously, signage plans for property zoned to Planned Districts could be established by approval of a CSP, which was approved through a public hearing before the Planning Commission. With an SE, sign plans in Planned Districts will now require an additional public hearing as the approval authority lies with the Board of Supervisors. Sign plans will still have a public hearing before the Planning Commission to receive the Planning Commission’s recommendation.

Fairfax County, understanding the economic development and placemaking importance of signage, worked with the development industry to establish a policy for an expedited review and public hearing schedule for a sign SE. This will minimize some of the time lost from adding an additional public hearing. In addition, Fairfax County adopted alternative submission requirements for a sign SE in place of the standard special exception application requirements.

Tenants, landlords, property managers, and brokers should all be mindful that amendments to an existing CSP will require converting the CSP to a SE. Fairfax County has indicated that it will work with applicants on a case by case basis to help streamline the process required to convert the sign plan.

What this means for Commercial and Industrial Districts (C&I Districts)

The new sign SE will be a significant improvement for commercial and industrial zoned property (C&I Districts). Previously, the standards for C & I districts only allowed a modification of certain sign regulations if the applicant could prove a hardship of unusual circumstances. This outdated regulation did not contemplate reasons such as environmental branding and economic  development.  Now, a property in a C&I Districts that is developed or approved for development with an individual building, group of buildings, office or industrial complex, or a shopping center with a minimum floor area of 30,000 square feet may seek a modification of all of the signage requirements listed for C&I Districts in Section  7101.3 of the Zoning Ordinance. As an example of this improvement, the old SE requirements only allowed for an increase in sign area, increase in sign height, or a different location of a sign. However, the previous code provisions did not allow the erection of a freestanding sign not otherwise permitted by ordinance. The previous sign ordinance generally only allowed one free standing sign. The new Sign SE permits a modification of that general limitation.

Those that benefit the most from Part II changes are properties in C&I Districts, as the amendment significantly increases the amount of sign flexibility that can be approved with an SE. Our view is that the most exciting opportunity lies within proactive changes resulting in the expansion of placemaking. Properties should use this amendment as an opportunity to impact their development’s visibility and design consistency around marketing and branding.

What this means from the design / placemaking perspective

Elevating placemaking within a development involves a thoughtful integration of design, from wayfinding and signage to speciality features like exhibits, art installations and murals. These elements create a sense of identity, community, and engagement. First and foremost, it’s essential to establish a cohesive visual language that aligns with the development’s overall theme and purpose (brand). Signage should not merely convey information but contribute to the aesthetic and atmosphere of the space. Incorporating strategic materials, branded elements, or distinctive architectural features into the design can foster a sense of authenticity and connection to place.

Overall our view is optimistic that this sign amendment provides an opportunity to strategically plan and also rethink developmental branding, wayfinding, and placemaking. From the design perspective, Part II allows property owners a whole new opportunity to consider placemaking. This is a fundamental enhancement of economic viability that was never available before.


About the Authors:

Jill Spaeth is a Partner at Spaeth Hill, an Alexandria based design firm that specializes in branding and wayfinding for the built environment. David Schneider is a Partner at Holland and Knight, based in their Tyson’s location and specializes in land use and zoning in Northern Virginia. This article was written for the 2024 NAIOP VA Bus Tour booklet.