A Sign Of The Times

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It costs a lot of money to look this good.

This is not the policy of an L.A. reality TV star, but the citys policy on signage in its historic Old Town districts where bumpy red brick sidewalks anchor century-old buildings, some dating back to the 18th century, exemplifying virtually every architectural style that has been popular on the east coast in the last 200 years, according to design guidelines used by Alexandrias Board of Architectural Review, the body responsible for maintaining Alexandrias historic aesthetic.

Fast forward to this century when Director of Volunteer Alexandria Melinda Patrician attempted to attach a sign to the organizations new Alfred Street location. Applying for the sign with the BAR cost $500, $450 more than it would have been last year.

I was taken aback with the amount of the fee, Patrician said. I thought it was an inordinate amount for a nonprofit.

Patrician said her organization could not afford to pay the fee. Their new location, recently adjoined with the Red Cross as a cost-saving measure, is without a sign.

Nonprofit or not, the budget adopted by City Council last year raised the fee for non-residential signs as part of a package aimed at increasing city revenue before the recession permeated the local and national economy. The sign fees, along with other BAR fees that were also increased, would produce $194,000 in new revenue, according to last years budget document.

I think its an egregious increase, said one BAR member who wished to remain anonymous. The sign often doesnt cost as much as the application fee.

People come to us totally astonished by the difficulty of doing business in the City of Alexandria.
The BAR member said that, surprisingly, there was no decrease in the number of applications the board received since the fees implementation.

The fee hike was intended to counter the cost, in both dollars and staff hours, of the lengthy application process that requires oversight from three different organizations: The Office of Planning and Zoning, Code Enforcement and the BAR.

That level of coordination can be tedious. But maintaining the character of the historic district is a priority for the city, as it attracts tourism to Alexandria and preserves the city as a picturesque place to live.

We simply meant [the fee increase] as a good way to recoup all the time and effort that went into processing these applications, Councilman Paul Smedberg said. I dont think anyone intended to hurt small businesses.

Patrician was surprised at the cost but understood realized its expensive for the city to administer this type of regulation to keep signs looking uniform and looking good.

Smedberg said the fee and tax package that included the signage hike was researched by staff but was so comprehensive in nature that when we did it, you just couldnt possibly think of every single possible scenario.

Now, as nonprofits and businesses get hit hard, the issue is up for debate. Candidates at last weeks City Council forum commented on the fee, some calling for a sliding scale to maintain and attract new businesses.

The current proposed budget includes no fee reductions but includes the elimination of a seasonal staffer that will result in delayed review and response times for BAR issues, including permits and BAR case reports.

The fee extended everywhere from the large companies to even the boutique shoe stores, Smedberg said. And I think for boutique shoe stores, $500 can be and is, in this environment, a lot of money.

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