Size matters . . . when it comes to signs

Sperryville businessman’s variance request tabled; BZA asks for legal opinion

Courtesy photo

Nearly 100 people packed into the Rappahannock County Courthouse for the May 23 Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, presumably in support of Sperryville businessman Robert Archer’s application for a variance for a large “sign” he painted on the exterior wall of his business.

However, because the public hearing was continued to the June BZA meeting, it was unknown how many members of the public were present in support of the “Welcome to Sperryville” sign and how many in protest.

Archer recently opened The Happy Camper Equipment Co., on Main Street in Sperryville.

Scrolled in white and orange against a green wall, the sign was cited by Zoning Administrator Michelle Somers in a letter to Archer dated April 17 as being in violation of the county’s sign ordinance.

The controversial “Welcome to Sperryville” sign, painted on the wall of the Happy Camper Equipment Co. Courtesy photo

In a subsequent letter to the BZA on May 16, she said, “[The violation] notice was sent after receiving numerous complaints from the public [about the sign’s conformity with the county’s zoning ordinance].”

The letter goes on to explain, “According to the Rappahannock County Code . . . a wall sign is allowed to be 75 square feet and the ‘Welcome lo Sperryville’ sign is 285 square feet in size. The sign is painted on the side of the building. In addition, Mr. Archer has approval for another sign on the front of the building which is 38.5 square feet in size.

“While many call this sign a mural,” Somers wrote, “the Rappahannock County Code 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 something known; and B. Visible from a public right -of-way or from adjoining property.’”

Ever since Somers’ April 17 violation letter was made known, members of the community have rallied in support of Archer. Petitions circulated around the county in favor of the sign have generated hundreds of signatures. BZA chair Alex Sharp acknowledged during the meeting that the county had received many emails and calls in favor of the sign. And many of the spectators at the meeting wore t-shirts bearing a likeness of the sign.

In preliminary comments, Sharp said he agrees with the community members who like the sign. But, he said, the code is specific about the authority of the BZA and the requirements for proving the need for a variance.

“The BZA deals with applications that are brought before us and typically call for dealing with the zoning ordinance as it is written,” Sharp said. “[For a variance] a hardship needs to be proven. You have to show a substantial hardship, not just an inconvenience.”

Later, he and other members of the BZA explained that variances apply to structures, not signs. And that an example of a “hardship” might be that Archer is unable to run his business without a variance. [See Sidebar: Proving Hardship].

Sharp also disclosed that while he didn’t necessarily need to recuse himself from the proceedings around Archers’ petition, he did want to disclose that “I have a business relationship with [Archer]. I rent space to him.”

Sharp urged Archer to take 30 days to amend his application, as “your application is unlikely to pass tonight as submitted.” He also suggested that Archer petition the Board of Supervisors to amend the zoning ordinance.

Archer told the BZA that his “intent in painting the wall was purely good spirited and is an asset to our village. I believe it mirrors the intent of the Rappahannock ordinance to enhance the attractiveness of Rappahannock County.” And he disputed an aspect of code’s definition of a sign.

“Signs make things known,” said Archer. “I argue that what I have painted does not make anything known.”

He also complained that Somers should not have directed him to seek a variance if it was not applicable to signs.

“As I understand the zoning ordinance . . . the variance process does not speak to signage,” said Archer.” I feel like this application — the way I was directed — was erroneously brought to your [attention]. I don’t see how you can vote up or down on this tonight.”

In a later interview, Archer said he didn’t feel the BZA was prepared to hear his application.

Ron Goodman, an attorney from Piedmont district at the meeting to support Archer, asked the BZA about the procedure to “contest the idea that this is a violation.” Sharp answered that Archer should have appealed Somers’ violation ruling within 30 days of receiving her letter.

Before the vote to continue the public hearing till June, BZA member David Konick said, “We only have one issue before us. Is there a hardship that justifies giving [Archer] a variance?”

Konick, Chris Bird, and Jennifer Matthews voted in favor of a continuance. Sharp recused himself, as he rents Archer storage space in a separate building. The BZA is short one member, due to the recent resignation of William Anderson. A replacement is expected to be named soon.

Konick, Bird and Matthews also voted in favor of seeking a legal opinion before the June meeting about whether the BZA could grant a variance on a sign. On May 24, Sharp sent a letter to County Attorney Art Goff asking his advice.

In other action, the BZA:

  • Approved Susan Belle’s special use permit application for a tourist home on her 50-acre Flint Hill property with conditions placed by the Planning Commission at its April 18 meeting. The planners recommended restricting the number of guests and requiring safety equipment and local emergency contact information. The BZA also added a restriction against outside fire pits or other open fire areas.

Konick suggested that Belle’s application be held for 30 days until the county could check the right of way and passability of the road leading to Belle’s property.

Sharp, Bird, and Matthews voted to approve the application. Konick abstained.

  • Met with Ashley Frazier to discuss the special permit for a family issued to her in June 2016. In her 2016 application she stated that she wanted to place a permanent mobile home on her 3.3 acre Boston property to house her mother-in-law. According to the county’s zoning ordinance, whenever a special use or special exception permit is issued, the approved activity and any construction “shall be diligently prosecuted” within a year, if no other time period has been specified. And if construction “has not commenced within a period of one year, unless an extension is granted, such [permit] shall automatically expire without notice.”

Frazier reported that the mobile home had been placed on the property, the electrical system was waiting for a hook-up, and the propane was ready to go into service. She said that the septic system was in, but that she was waiting for the contractor to sign off. And she expected everything to be complete in two or three months.

Sharp told her the BZA was satisfied. “We’ve established that you’re making progress.”

Proving ‘hardship’

Section 170-136 of the Rappahannock County code dealing with variances reads in part:

C. No such variance shall be authorized by the BZA unless it finds by affirmative vote of at least three of its members that:

(a) The strict application of this chapter would produce undue hardship relating to the property; and

(b) The hardship is not shared generally by other properties in the same zoning district and the same vicinity; and

(c) The authorization of the variance will not be of substantial detriment to adjacent property and that the character of the district will not be changed by the granting of the variance; and

(d) The condition or situation of the property concerned is not of so general or recurring a nature as to make reasonably practicable the formulation of a general regulation to be adopted as an amendment to the ordinance. (Note: Code of Virginia, §§ 15.2-2309; 15.2-2201.)

An unedited video of the Board of Zoning Appeals 7 p.m. session on Wednesday, May 23 can be found online at, or on the newspaper’s YouTube channel at The meeting agenda and related documents are online at

About Patty Hardee 271 Articles
Writer, consultant, actor, director, recovering stand-up comic, Patty covers the county’s courts and other topics of interest for Rappahannock News. She lives with her grape-growing husband Bill Freitag in Flint Hill.

1 Comment

  1. Okay… I could understand there being an issue if the sign promoted the business and the intent of creating thr sign was to generate growth and revenue for said business… But its not. The sign as it is written promotes the town of Sperryville (and all businesses within) and therefore doesn’t seem to be intended for personal gain. I say let it be and move on.

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