The battle being waged by Northern Virginia officials against signs of every size and type has left many area businesses and real estate agents searching for new ways to promote themselves without incurring hefty fines.

In Fairfax County, officials asked the state for permission to police their own roadways and remove all types of signs left in grassy medians and along 53 county streets. County officials are also trying to restrict electronic signs that blink, flash and change messages too frequently along roadways. The first electronic sign they cracked down on belonged to a church.

Fairfax also will pay about $150,000 a year and use county inmates to clear median strips of signs. Real estate agents and other businesses that advertise that way could face a $100 fine. The new effort is needed to rid the county of "the blight of illegal signs," said County Supervisor Pat Herrity, R-Springfield.

Neighboring Arlington County has been even tougher on signs. A doggy day care center was forced to cover up a building-size mural of cartoon dogs with one of birds in a hot tub because the county said the original mural was an advertisement for the business. A cigar store owner, scolded for having a mural of a smoker on his building, covered it with a blue whale and the county reclassified the painting as art.

The Virginia Department of Transportation, which handles most road maintenance in Northern Virginia, has stepped up its own sign-clearing efforts.

"We just got tired of seeing so many signs," said Branco Vlacich, VDOT's district maintenance administrator.

VDOT polices signs in Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun counties. Independent cities such as Alexandria maintain their own sign rules. The city prohibits most signs in public rights of way, though it allows campaign signs to be displayed there.

The energetic enforcement of sign laws across the region has business owners worried about how they can promote their services without running afoul of the rules.

Suzanne Granoski, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty, relies heavily on roadside signs to attract prospective homebuyers to open houses. She said she'll try promoting the sales more frequently online to make up for the lost exposure.

"A dozen 'Open House' signs helped nine different groups of people easily find my 18-hour-old listing [last week]," she said. "The 'For Sale' sign wasn't even in the yard yet. ... Signs do make a significant difference."

Kim Houghton, owner of Wag More Dogs in Arlington, had one of the more public feuds with county officials over a 960-square-foot doggy mural on the side of her building. The mural didn't mention the shop and it faced a dog park. But the county concluded that it was not art but a sign. After a court battle, Houghton was forced to paint over the mural.

"I'm glad to be done with the whole process," Houghton said.