Proposed moratorium on off-premises sign applications on hold

26 SIGNs moratorium

Following Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission’s deferment, Sussex County Council last Tuesday deferred action on a proposed six-month moratorium on accepting special-use exception applications for off-premises signs/billboards.

GEORGETOWN – Double deferment has put on hold decision-making action on a proposed Sussex County ordinance targeting special-use exception applications for off-premises signs – a moratorium proposal critics say is way off target.

“You typically think of a moratorium arising in a crisis or an emergency situation to address a particular need or crisis that has just arisen,” said local attorney David Hutt. “That is simply not the case in this matter. There is no crisis. There is no emergency.”

Spurred by County Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, the County is seeking to impose a six-month moratorium on accepting applications for special-use exception for off-premise signs – noticeably billboards.

The moratorium would provide time to review current County Code regarding not only off-premise signs but all signage in general.

Five days after the Planning and Zoning Commission deferred action Aug. 13, County Council likewise formally deferred; because Planning and Zoning did not make a recommendation.

At that Aug. 13 public hearing, Planning and Zoning Commission members Marty Ross, I.G. Burton III and Bob Wheatley voted to defer the matter until all five members have a voice in the discussion. Commission members Rodney Smith and Michael Johnson were not present for the public hearing.

It was pointed by commission members that nowhere in an April 6 letter from the County’s Board of Adjustment to County Council is there the BOA’s reference to a moratorium.

“When you read the letter from the Board of Adjustment it says nothing about a moratorium,” said Mr. Wheatley, Planning and Zoning Commission president. “It just points out that they are getting a lot of applications and they noted several areas that need attention. But they are not asking for a moratorium.”

“I think it would be best for us to wait until we had a full commission to vote,” Mr. Wheatley added.

Public safety and distraction have been stated as reasons for code review and the moratorium.

Bandit signs – featherlike temporary signs that often pop up along roadsides on weekends – and flashing digital on-premises signs have drawn concern from some council members.

“The plan is to not outlaw, prohibit billboards or any of that stuff,” Mr. Cole said. “It’s just to look at it and try to see if some stuff might be outdated so we can clean that up. Some stuff may be obsolete. We can get rid of that. It will be a good time to do some housekeeping. I hear more people talk about this issue than I think about most things in the County…”

Mr. Cole said there “are safety problems, distractions and other things. We’ve got problems with size. We’ve got problems with variances. And you know a variance should only be issued for hardship. And I guarantee you many of the variances we have issued for signs and billboards are not because of hardship. I think we have exposed ourselves. The county needs to tighten it up and fix the ordinance.”

Mr. Hutt, who has represented numerous applicants in billboard applications before the Board of Adjustment over the years, says off-premises billboards are not the problem.

“The mystery to me is how a discussion about bandit signs and LED on-premises signs results in a moratorium on off-premise signs,” said Mr. Hutt. “As council is aware, a moratorium is probably the most extraordinary tool in your legislative toolbox. And that’s because it takes away all of the property owner’s rights with respect to whatever that moratorium issue is. In this case it affects all property owners who own land that is zoned C-1 or CR-1.”

Mr. Hutt added that the “complaints that council has been talking about have been related to on-premises signs and yet the answer is to propose a moratorium on off-premise signs. Off-premise signs are probably the most regulated signs … at national, state and local levels.”

Former County Council member Lynn Rogers, addressing council on behalf of Rogers Sign Company of Milton, said a “moratorium is very, very counter-productive. A moratorium affects the productivity of work that the companies do.”

Companies involved in steel, fabrication, welding, crane crews and truck drivers would feel the impact of a moratorium, Mr. Rogers said, noting a domino effect would trickle down to hotels/lodging and restaurants.

According to Mr. Rogers, years ago a past Council Councilman, Bill Stevenson, attempted to remove all billboards in Sussex County within five years.

Mr. Rogers was successful in heading off a “knee-jerk” council reaction while creating a committee to study billboards. Committee representation included County Council. Planning and Zoning, sign companies and “people that hated signs, people that really didn’t give a hoot about signs. And the Federal Highway Administration; I suggested be a part of that, because the Federal Highway Administration has a lot to do with billboards. Billboards are the highest regulated sign there is out there.”

That statement was voiced by Nancy Chernoff, representing Clear Channel Outdoor, a Salisbury-based billboard firm that has approximately 150 off-premises billboards located throughout Sussex County.

“All are licensed and permitted through the state, through the county and adhere to all the regulations,” Ms. Chernoff said. “Billboards/off-premise signs … are highly regulated by OSHA, and by other standards that we adhere to.”

Countywide, there are only one, possibly two off-premises digital billboards – on SR 26.

Statistically speaking, Mr. Hutt said numbers do not add up for a desperate need for a moratorium.

“In the last eight years you (County) have had 82 applications for billboards,” said Mr. Hutt. “This year to my knowledge (BOA) has handled 14 requests and it has denied in part or in whole five. For the Board of Adjustment that is a high percentage of denials for those type of applications, which tells me that the board is carefully considering those applications and dealing with them on a case by case basis.”

“I don’t understand why we are so gun-ho about moratoriums,” said County Councilman Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, an outspoken opponent of a moratorium. “It sounds like there … is not a big deal on signs anyway.”

Ms. Chernoff noted a distinct difference between billboards and on-premises signs.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion sometimes,” said Ms. Chernoff.

Mr. Rogers says special-use exception requests for billboards undergo triple hurdles because it’s a special-use exception before the Board of Adjustment, there is a public hearing, and once permission is granted at the County level the applicant must deal with DelDOT.

“Board of Adjustment hammers you pretty good. They are very knowledgeable about signs this day and time with the present board,” said Mr. Rogers. “When you get permission from Sussex County then you’ve got to deal with DelDOT. And they regulate their billboards; they do their job.”

“Planning and Zoning Commission is a legislative body appointed by council. The Board of Adjustment is a judiciary body appointed by council,” said Mr. Rogers. “Difference is when P & Z turns something down you can appeal it to county council – you all become appellate court judges basically – but when a case is turned down by the Board of Adjustment it’s final. It can only go to Superior Court. And most of the time their judgment is upheld.”

County Administrator Todd Lawson said efforts are ongoing to set a date for a workshop that would bring together County Council, Board of Adjustment, Planning and Zoning, County legal staff, DelDOT and possibly others. Mr. Cole emphasized the need for DelDOT to attend the workshop.

Mr. Hutt offered to be of some assistance.

“I will personally invite you to sit at our table,” said Mr. Wilson.

“Thank you,” said Mr. Hutt.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at

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