The following questions and answers are in response to concerns about the law governing real estate sign installation.  If you have further questions please contact VAR Associate Counsel Blake Hegeman at (804) 264-5033, or e-mail blake@varealtor.com.

NEW REGULATIONS OR LAW?

Were VAR’s recent communications about the need to notify Miss Utility before installing real estate signs in response to new regulations or a new law?

No.  The Virginia Underground Utility Damage Prevention Act was enacted thirty years ago to address the responsibilities of all stakeholders in preventing damage to underground utility lines.  However, recently the State Corporation Commission’s (SCC) Division of Utility and Railroad Safety staff asserts they have seen damage to utility lines caused by the installation of real estate and other signs, and have begun a campaign to educate stakeholders about the law and step-up enforcement of the law.  No new regulations have been enacted and the Act has not been revised. We regret if our previous communications gave that impression.  The SCC’s recent actions only concern education and enforcement of a long-standing statute.

REMOVE EXISTING SIGNS?

Do I have to remove signs now in place that were installed without checking with Miss Utility?

The SCC has not suggested this action to VAR or in its educational materials.  However, it is important to comply with the law going forward, unless or until it is changed.

HOMEOWNER EXEMPTION?

Are homeowners exempt from the requirements of the Act?  If so, may I inform my clients that they are permitted to install signs without calling Miss Utility, and suggest that they do so?

There is a limited exemption from notification and other requirements of this statute for the owner of the property (see excerpt below from the Code of Virginia).  We are not advising Realtors to suggest their clients place real estate signs themselves, although the Act does exempt property owners from first having to call Miss Utility before placing signs in their yards by hand.  Realtors and their clients need to realize, however, that this exemption is limited to excavations by non-mechanized tools or equipment.  Owners need to get clearance before using a back-hoe or gas-powered augur, for example.

Please keep in mind that property owners installing signs pursuant to this exemption could still face liability if they damage a utility line, and conceivably could pursue action against a Realtor who advises an owner to place the sign without first checking with Miss Utility.

§ 56-265.15:1. Exemptions; routine maintenance.
Nothing in this chapter shall apply to:
1. Any hand digging performed by an owner or occupant of a property.

DAMAGE FROM REAL ESTATE SIGNS?

Have real estate signs caused damage to underground utility lines?  Is there special danger from spiked real estate signs?

According to the SCC’s historical data since 1995 (which includes damage only to gas utility lines), on 49 reported occasions realty companies have damaged underground utility lines and on 23 reported occasions sign installation companies working for real estate companies have caused such damage.

The SCC maintains that hand-installed spike signs create special problems.  Their ease of installation makes them a preferred choice in many instances, especially when larger, more permanent signs will not be installed until later.  Many are placed at the front of properties near streets to increase visibility and are thus often located on utility easements.  Until recently, certain utility lines have not had minimum depth requirements, making them easier to strike.  Even a depth that is initially adequate may change over time as a lot is graded or erosion occurs. Also, utility lines are often fragile and can be easily pierced.

The SCC has provided VAR with the attached PowerPoint presentation to illustrate these issues. (Click to download it to your computer — about 7MB.)

WHAT’S NEXT?

VAR is in discussions with the SCC about these new enforcement actions, and has obtained an important ruling recognizing an exemption from enforcement against so-called “coat-hanger” signs.  As more issues arise (for example, how large a sign qualifies for the coat-hanger sign enforcement ruling?), we are considering all options.  However, the SCC has made clear that it has abandoned its previous lax enforcement of the Act because of the safety issues involved.  We are working to find the common ground that assures protection of life and property without undue restrictions on the ability of homeowners and Realtors to make reasonable use of signs in the marketing of property.