‘Welcome to Sperryville’ sign is deemed a nonconforming ‘sign’

Zoning official: ‘I don’t make the rules I just enforce them’

A Sperryville businessman with an artistic flair has unwittingly stepped into the murky area of art versus advertising.

Courtesy photo

Last month, Happy Camper Equipment Co. owner Robert Archer hand-painted an old-fashioned art mural on one end of his soon-to-open retail store, which extends to passersby the friendly greeting, “Welcome to Sperryville, Main Street — Est. 1820.”

Now, an unidentified person has brought the mural to the attention of the Rappahannock County Zoning Administration, pointing out that Archer never went through the required permit process to paint the sign, which county art critics have extolled as a fine art masterpiece.

Which begs the question: If it’s a mural that doesn’t advertise a business, as commercial signage does, did the businessman need the county’s permission in the first place? The answer, it turns out, is yes.

Michelle Somers, Zoning Administrator for Rappahannock County, tells the Rappahannock News that county code 170-93 defines a “sign” as: Any writing, letter or numeral work, pictorial presentation, illustration or decoration, emblem, device, symbol or trademark, flag, banner or pennant, sculpture or any other device, figure or similar character which is: A. Used to announce, direct attention to, identify, advertise or otherwise make anything known; and B. Visible from a public right-of-way or from adjoining property.”

Certainly Archer’s mural is decorative, and it also makes something known — that visitors passing through Rappahannock County are “welcome” in the village of Sperryville. Furthermore, the eye catching design is intentionally visible to motorists traveling east on Highway 211 from Shenandoah National Park, no different than the “Cooter’s Luray” billboard is visible to visitors driving west from Sperryville on Highway 211.

Which leads to county code 170-94. To install, or in this case paint such a sign, the Rappahannock County government requires a permit: “No sign shall be erected or displayed without a current and valid permit issued by the Zoning Administrator.”

“As many of you have heard, our Welcome to Sperryville wall at the western entrance to Main Street is under fire,” Archer has written in recent days to the Rappahannock community. “My original intent was to add character to our village and county and to welcome visitors to my home and favorite place on Earth.

“However, a complaint against the wall was made to the Zoning Office and I’m now forced to seek a variance in order that we keep the welcome ‘sign.’ The application has been filed and I’m slated to appear before the Board of Zoning Appeals on May 23rd, at 7 p.m. (County Courthouse). I encourage you to attend and voice your opinion.”

Reached at the Zoning office in Washington, Somers tells the News: “When my office receives a complaint it is my job to enforce the zoning ordinance. I don’t make the rules I just enforce them.”

She additionally encourages residents who are unfamiliar with county codes and regulations to read about them online, or else call or visit the county’s zoning office and somebody will assist them.

Archer, meanwhile, tells this newspaper that “the building and zoning offices have both been incredibly warm and professional in their handling of the situation.”

That said, he’s taking no chances in preserving the unique mural.

“After discussion with the Zoning Office I was directed to file a variance so that it could be heard by the BZA,” Archer explains. “Apparently the ‘sign’ is non-conforming under the maximum allowable square footage for signs (Section 170-107 of Article XII).”

To help his cause, Archer has launched an online petition drive to support the welcome sign (it’s already collected hundreds of signatures) and printed petitions are also collecting signatures in various Sperryville business establishments.

The petition states that the applicant is seeking variance for the mural, which falls under purview of Article 12: “Signs” of Chapter 170: “Zoning” in the Rappahannock County Code.

“Section 170-107 of the Code stipulates no more than 75 square feet of signage in Village Commercial areas. Applicant is requested use of approximately 25-feet long by 10-feet tall section of the structure wall for continued use as a welcome ‘sign.’”

“I hope to use this opportunity as a positive force towards county unity,” says Archer. “At no point did I believe this welcoming gesture was anything but a positive move nor would drag the county into discourse. I’m still hopeful this falls under clerical housekeeping and that the intent of our neighbors is just and good.”

The “force,” as he refers to it, appears to be with Archer — judging, at least, by the overwhelming number of supportive comments on the popular social media site Rappnet.

“It’s happy, positive and an artful way to promote Main Street and all the great things going on in Sperryville,” one county resident wrote.

“Hopefully the supervisors/zoning board . . . will be sensible and allow that beautiful sign to remain and approve it retroactively,” added another.

“I love the sign — it’s such a friendly greeting — it’s folk art, not really a sign at all,” a third person weighed in.

But a word of caution was similarly extended to the community as a whole.

“This is how we get divided,” a writer warned. “If this sign was put on without a permit, then that’s it. The Middle Street Gallery had to have a little sign the size of a medium cutting board approved before it could be put up. All new signs have to be approved. Keep in mind that this is a rule to protect the beauty of our environment, because without it, someone could put up a humongous butt-ugly purple-pink sign advertising some awful something. Let’s hope it can be approved retroactively and let’s pour our energy into a campaign of support!”

“I agree,” came a reply. “I think the sign is beautiful and really adds some nice character to the town. But, if you do any kind of change to anything, you really should take a few minutes to check ordinances just so you don’t have to go through this. A lot of work was put into that for sure. These things really are set up to protect the beauty of the area. We need to appreciate that. Huge purple-pink signs would be nauseating.”

Concludes Archer: “The spirit of the mural was purely an altruistic act that I believed would contribute to the character of our village (and county at-large) while referencing a rural nostalgia and agrarian past. I wanted to advertise our village, not my business . . .

“I had shown the design to many neighbors (mostly on Main Street) prior to painting it and I received nothing but thumbs up . . . and certainly huge praise once the finished design was life size. The daily outpouring of love and solidarity from its inception and since has been a galvanizing and unifying force in the village. We’ve such great energy here already with our new businesses, this underscores that village pride.”

In fact, one might argue, the mural no longer belongs to Archer.

“The mural has become a landmark unto itself with many neighbors already taking great pride in it, visitors stopping to photograph it and sharing on social media,” he agrees. “In fact, I feel it’s no longer mine but rather now part of our community’s domain.”

About John McCaslin 242 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.

7 Comments

  1. This code is either poorly written or is being misinterpreted. Under the code a flag is a sign and under the interpretation put forth in this article flying a POW/MIA flag “makes something known”, i.e., POWs and MIAs are not forgotten. Is this article/the Zoning Administrator suggesting that a county permit is needed to fly a flag?

    I am sure that was not the intent of the statute, but that is how it appears to be written/is being interpreted. The Zoning Administrator is incorrect; every complaint does not merit an investigation and an enforcement action. Heck, as we learned here in the Rappahannock News you can blow up enough tannerite to rattle windows for miles and not merit an investigation.

    I would respectfully suggest she reconsider before someone challenges this statute as overly broad and violative of the 1st amendment. The limitation on large commercial signage to maintain the appearance of our county may or may not be appropriate. This is not commercial signage. Unless she going to drive around the county tearing down flags (Does the U.S. flag send a message? Does the county courthouse have a permit? Does she really think it needs one?), she should reprioritize her enforcement efforts.

  2. Looks like the neighbors would have told him he needed permission. Are the people on that street afraid to tell him or maybe they were hoping to have a situation like this!

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