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Church's banners raise more questions on sign law

October 25, 2010 - 11:43 AM
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Methodist Temple Banners
The original proposal for Arlington Temple UMC's banners. The size of the banners will be cut in half under the approved plan. (Photo: TBD Staff)

It's been a few months since students at the Art Institute of Washington designed a number of brightly colored, spiritual banners to adorn the outside of the Arlington Temple United Methodist Church in Rosslyn.

But even though church members and others within the neighborhood have expressed much support for the splash of color the banners will provide to the gray streets of Rosslyn, winning approval from Arlington County was not quite as easy.

The county board approved the banners at a meeting Oct. 23, but not until the church agreed to reduce their size by about half. The reduction helped the church come into compliance with the county's sign law, and also allayed fears from the local civic association that the banners would enclose part of the elevated walkway to the church and create a safety risk.

The negotiations over the church's banners drew attention to what many have argued in the past: that Arlington's sign ordinance needs a revamp. Board member Chris Zimmerman, who has been outspoken on the sign law, highlighted the issue at the meeting.

"My own view of what we have here is a contribution of public art which will enliven a place that needs it," he said at the Oct. 23 meeting. "I would like to see us get to where we can treat things like this a little differently. I think its part of the weakness of the existing ordinance."

 "If there is another situation like this, I think the uniqueness of the site has got to be a factor in determining the breadth and depth of the sign ordinance," said board member Barbara Favola.

The debate comes down to what constitutes a sign versus public art, and at times, the line is a fine one. The recent controversy over the Wag More Dogs mural, which included a business's logo and was cited as a violation of the sign law, is one recent example.

Arlington Temple's banners were signs because they were directing people to the church's entrance; but a banner wrapping around the Founders Square construction site in Ballston was deemed not to be a marketing sign because it included paintings by local artists, and didn't involve direct information about the project.

"They wanted to cover the excavation, and we said, 'we would consider art something that has absolutely nothing to do with what you’re going to put up on this site," Zoning Administrator Melinda Artman says. "If you have a painting of fuffy clouds, which achieves the purpose of masking the hole, but doesn’t direct identify or inform anybody of the project, that's fine."

But those paintings, and accompanying phrases, do speak to general principles of the project, says Kevin Shooshan, whose firm is developing the Founders Square site. The company's aim is "to spread the word about the project," Shooshan told us a few weeks ago, but by making the banners a mural, of sorts, the company avoided having to get county board approval for the signs.

The county is planning to review and possibly revise the sign law; county attorney Stephen MacIsaac told board members the county would do its best to balance the various factors in any re-write. It's unclear how quickly change could come, however, especially given a larger proposal to update the entire zoning ordinance.

For the church's part, Pastor Cathy Abbott says that she has "come to peace on the revised proposal. It looks like a good compromise." The banners will be hung sometime early next year, she adds.

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