Thursday, May 28, 2009

DCRA's Response to Illegal Billboards

Today, The Examiner reported:
Inspectors will be “going after all the blatantly illegal signs” starting today, Spokesman Michael Rupert said.

Below is the full text of DCRA Director Argo's response to the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association's letter:

Dear Mr. Silverman:

Thank you for your recent letter regarding outdoor advertising signs in the Mount Vernon Square/Shaw neighborhood. I’m also copying all the neighbors that sent me emails requesting the removal of the billboards located at P St and New Jersey, NW.

At the outset, I should correct a few inaccuracies in your letter. As you noted, the District has imposed a moratorium on the 32 existing “special signs.” This was done via the Special Signs Amendment Act of 2001 (D.C. Law 14-95, effective March 19, 2002).The act imposed a permanent moratorium on the issuance ofany new permits for special signs and restricted the locations for transferring special signs. Thelocation of each of the authorized special signs is located on the DCRA website ( by clicking on the “Special Signs” link.

Additionally, the District has along-standing moratorium on the erection of any new billboards. The D.C. Construction Codes, specifically Chapter 31A of Title 12A of the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations, govern the construction and permitting of alloutdoor signs. Under Section 3107.7.6.1, only those billboards in existence as of January 1, 1972 are authorized to remain in place. If a billboard were to be demolished, it could not be rebuilt or relocated to another site.

We’ve been trying to piece togetherthe history behind this moratorium. From what we’ve been able to gather, billboards were first constructed in the District in early 1931. Their appearance caused an outcry by residents concerned that billboardswere a blight on the city’s aesthetics. By the end of 1931, the District’s government had banned the construction of any new billboards in the city. The only billboards that could remain were those contained on the “Authorized List of Billboards, Three-sheet Poster Boards, and Wall Signs,” dated November 30, 1931. That authorized list was updated about once a decade until the early1970s. Unfortunately, after contacting the National Archives, the D.C. Archives, the Commission of Fine Arts, and the National Capital Planning Commission, we have been unable to find a copy of that authorized list.

However, we are currently creating an inventory of all legally authorized outdoor signs in the District. Once we have created an accurate inventory, we will be sending out inspectors to investigate any signs that are posted, but for which we do not have any permitting information on file. For those signs deemed to be illegal, we will issue notices to the owners of the property and the sign requiring the sign’s removal.

We also have received several emails regarding four billboards located near the intersection of New Jersey Avenue, Fourth Street, and P Street, NW. Both these emails and your letter refer to those four billboards as “illegal.”

Based on our research, however, we believe those four billboards are grandfathered by Section 3107.7.6.1. I have attached a copy of a building permit issued in July 1961 by the D.C. Department of Licenses and Inspections (DCRA’s predecessor regulatory agency). The 1961 building permit authorized the removal of five billboards located on the property, to be replaced by four billboards. While such a replacement is not allowed under the current D.C. Construction Codes, it was allowable under the Construction Codes in place at that time.

I should also point out that for most, if not all, of the grandfathered billboards, DCRA is highly unlikely to still have records of the building permits issued more than 40 years ago.

We encourage all residents to let us know the location of billboards or other outdoor signs they suspect are unauthorized so that we can conduct a full investigation. To that end, we’re creating a special email address – – that will be up and running tomorrow morning where residents can email information about any sign they believe may be unauthorized, including the location, a photograph (.jpg), and any detail from the sign that indicates the owner and owner contact information. I will let you know of our progress in investigating the several outdoor signs you included in your letter.

I would also ask that you distribute this email to community residents, associations and websites so that we can best maximize our efforts at getting as much input as possible from affected District residents.

Best regards,
Linda Argo

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