Signs, signs: Trucks squeeze past sign rules

If you think the new Best Buy is hard to miss because of its bright lights, just check out the big rig parked in its lot. Conveniently, the truck, which displays the "Best Buy" logo, stands parallel to Route 29, in perfect view of passing traffic.

A couple of miles down the road, ACAC has the same idea: For the past four years, it's had a mini-bus with the ACAC logo parked roadside.

Massive ads in the face of commuters– sounds a lot like a billboard, right? But aren't billboards against Charlottesville's zoning regulations?

"I don't see any problem with the trucks," says Reed Broadhead, zoning inspector for the city.

But couldn't this be seen as a clever way to get around Charlottesville's strict signage laws, which limit signs to a height of 10 feet and a maximum area of 40 square feet?

"They're there to make deliveries, like other companies who have advertising on the side of their trucks," says Broadhead. "It'd be a different case if they were just parking them there."

Albemarle County is currently wrestling with the signage issue.

"Advertising vehicles are one of the more difficult sign regulations because you need to allow people to park in approved parking spaces," says Amelia McCulley in the county's community development department. "We haven't found a way to regulate it... Do you regulate according to how often they use it?"

McCulley feels that most businesses are not going to buy a vehicle to be solely used for advertising. Maybe not, but there are ways to maximize vehicle advertising without a hefty purchase price.

National Mobile Billboards, a Florida-based company, has capitalized on that notion. Whether a business needs a quick three-day campaign or a yearlong advertisement, a truck bearing the ad will be parked and driven around a specified area by a National Mobile Billboards driver.

In September 2003, the Hook reported that the company had arrived in town to promote SunTrust Bank's new branch on the Corner.

The truck could be spotted in late August rotating among two-hour parking spots on Main Street.

Around the same time, the Richmond area confronted a similar issue. Chesterfield County resident Ellen Clark parked a truck advertising her real estate agency in a Lowe's lot. County officials, however, quashed her promotion.

"The County of Chesterfield cited her for zoning violations," says Randy Rowlett, Clark's attorney. Recently Rowlett appealed the decision to the Circuit Court.

"We also filed a declaratory judgment asking for the Circuit Court to find the ordinance unconstitutional," says Rowlett.

The issue of signs has long been a sticky one, with business owners sometimes accusing local government of being "anti-business."

Last year, this accusation came from Tom Slonaker, owner of the Forest Lakes Arby's, when the county denied him the right to fly an Arby's flag outside his restaurant in late 2002. The incident caused quite a stir, and libertarians, loyal to the roast beef sandwich joint, even held a "rally round the flag." To further show support, cars donned mini Arby's flags.

Such use of cars– and trucks– as advertising is sure to increase, says marketing expert Pam Fitzgerald of the Ivy Group.

"Until city/county ordinances make it possible for stores to promote themselves, and offer directional and informational signage in a way that helps them market their business," says Fitzgerald, "you're going to find promotional alternatives."

Guess what this truck's hauling.