Sign posts, digging, and the SCC: the FAQs

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.

About Andrew Kantor

Andrew is VAR's editor and information manager, and -- lessee now -- a former reporter for the Roanoke Times, former technology columnist for USA Today, and a former magazine editor for a bunch of places. He hails from New York with stops in Connecticut, New Jersey, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Roanoke.
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10 Responses to Sign posts, digging, and the SCC: the FAQs

  1. Doug Francis says:

    So I’m not sure… but some of us were busy last week and skipped over this little issue.

    I really hope that I don’t know the first agent who gets nailed for a violation.

  2. Jeremy Hart says:

    Doug, agreed – I was out of town and saved it for review, but it’s an important issue to note. Personally, I find it an over the top solution that needs revision – less than five instances per year, over the last 14.5 years, and the response is to take as little as three business days before being able to establish a presence in the yard?

  3. So the real question is:
    Why do they want to make our job/lives more difficult?

    (come on, a “coat-hanger” sign is about 6 inches deep max) I just called a local home inspector who says electrical lines need to be a minimum of 30 inches deep…

    Do the math! :)

  4. I do not want to be in the position of defending the SCC on something like this, but I will say that the code that says electric lines have to be 30 inches deep is new — as of July 2002 according to the SCC. Lots of houses older than that around.

  5. Jim Duncan says:

    @Andrew – one would think that if this new enforcement were in response to the copious number of damaged lines, the SCC would be willing and able to provide evidence/examples. Does anyone know if they have been asked for such examples?

    Without evidence to the contrary, it’s hard to see this as anything other than an attempt to increase state revenue.

  6. @Jim — Now you’re being mean, putting me in the position of defending the SCC! (When we’re done, it’ll be your turn to defend insurance companies.)

    Yes, the SCC did provide examples — some are in the attached PowerPoint presentation. I didn’t ask how recent they were or what the circumstances were, but I’m willing to give the SCC the benefit of the doubt that these were in Virginia and were fairly recent.

    Now, how many of these were caused by the kind of signs that Realtors use? No clue. But I have doubts that it’s about revenue, because they’re making it pretty straightforward to comply. (Annoying, yes. But straightforward.) Also, you gotta figure that most people will comply, if grudgingly. That means a lot more Miss Utility people going out to mark utility lines — which costs money.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to know that there’s something else behind this, but when the issue touches politics, I’ll admit to not having a clue what that could be. (New lawsuit threat? Change of administration? Message from a burning bush? Who knows?)

  7. maybe it is part of the “stimulus package” :)

  8. Tony Arko says:

    This is from the varealtor website:

    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.

    That means only 72 cases in 14+ years. That is 5 per year. Using only Northern Virginia listings that would be about 50,000 listings per year. Now if we assume that half of all Virginia listings are in NOVA that would be 100,000 per year in the whole state. I think that is a conservative number. Now divide that by the 5 cases per year and you get 1/20,000 of 1%.

    It is absolutely ridiculous that someone from the SCC or VAR hasn’t done the math and explained what a colossal waste of resources and time this is.

    C

  9. Pingback: Miss Utility Cracks Down on Signs in Virginia | Real Central VA

  10. I just called in sign placement for 4 rental properties for the EXACT SAME PLACES I had signs in for the last 3 to 5 years.

    I may start taking pictures of signs in place with date and time and archive them for the NEXT sign placement on the same property WITH the lines/markings in them. That way, I can e-mail them to Miss Utility each time I place a FOR LEASE sign up on the same property.

    I am going to keep a record of the ticket #s for y records!!

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