Bandit signs: Sussex County to review code for clarification

 

GEORGETOWN – It began some six years ago: a gentlemen’s agreement between officials from Sussex County and the state of Delaware that authorized County staff to remove illegal roadside signs planted in state right-of-ways.

Now, it seems that agreement is outdated and lacks authoritative teeth.

So amid the state’s request pertaining to the County removing illegal signs on state right-of-ways, a workshop, County Code review and possible ordinance revision loom as Sussex County leaders take aim at bandit signs.

“That may go as far as requesting the complete change of our County Code as it relates to signs, or specific amendments to the County Code and the sign ordinance,” said County Administrator Todd Lawson.

Recently the Delaware Department of Transportation contacted the County, requesting that County staff stop removing bandit signs from state right-of-ways.

“I have since been contacted by DelDOT asking us not to pull signs from the state right-of-way – until we get clarification on both the state’s authority and the county’s authority as it relates to temporary signs,” Mr. Lawson said. “They (the state) certainly have asked us to stop having County staff pull bandit signs from the state right-of-way.  Why they asked to do that, I think in discussions with officials it’s because it is just unclear … and a letter dated 2009 between us and the state – sort of a gentlemen’s agreement if you will – to allow us to pull signs is probably not the type of authority that they want to operate under.”

What is sought, Mr. Lawson, is “clarification and understanding from both entities as to when and if folks should be pulling signs.”

At issue are bandit signs – featherlike advertisements that often pop up along businesses and developments on weekends.

County staff had been removing temporary bandit signs – more than 1,000 since Jan. 1, 2015 – from private property and state right-of-ways under the gentlemen’s agreement.

Current County Code allows Sussex County staff to pull bandit signs on private property, said County Planning and Zoning Director Lawrence Lank.

According to Mr. Lank, on May 3 of this year, five County employees pulled 251 signs in four hours from both private and state right-of-ways. On May 22, three staff members pulled another 110 in two hours.

Typically, bandit signs are put out Friday nights “late … after we are closed basically and they pick them up late Sunday or in the early morning hours on Monday, before we open up again Monday morning,” Mr. Lank said.

“And the stakeholders that are utilizing these signs have told us it is a business decision to put the signs out and know that will be fined for it, and to pay the fine,” Mr. Lawson said. “Basically they are telling me in a very polite way – we’re willing to do it and get fined to do it.”

“The agreement that we had with the state – as Mr. Lawson said – it was in 2009 and it was a County staff member that made direct contact with the state representative from sign regulations,” said Mr. Lank. “And the agreement was that we could pull signs in the state right-of-way; both of those gentlemen are retired.”

“We’ve got an agreement; it’s not as very good one. We need to tighten that up,” said County Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View. “That just shows why we have to work with the state to make any impact on this issue. I think we are willing to work with them.”

Workshop discussion is expected to include input from County Planning & Zoning Commission County Board of Adjustment, County Council, DelDOT and perhaps even stakeholders, such as representatives of the development community, Mr. Lawson said.

The state, through DelDOT, does go out and pull illegal signs in right-of-ways, Mr. Lawson said.

“They are just unable to keep up with the frequency that you see those illegal signs,” said Mr. Lawson. “They want more clarify on how we should operate, moving forward.”

Mr. Lank said the County has ceased in issuing fines for illegal signage violations.

“It’s hard to differentiate; it’s tough to determine where the line is – state or private. So we haven’t really fined anybody for the last several months for the signs; we just pull them,” Mr. Lank said. “We didn’t want to fine people when we were trying to differentiate between 10 or 15 signs in one place; which one is on the state right-of-way and which one is not.”

Signs taken down by County staff were disposed of, Mr. Lank said.

County Councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, asked why the state would not want the County “to assist in their endeavor to enforce the law” if DelDOT cannot do their job.

“We don’t have the authority to enforce state law,” Mr. Cole said. “And we had no agreement other than some handshake and a wink and nod from two (now) retired officials. We have nothing, really.”

Mr. Lawson added that it could be a cost issue, considering the bandit sign blitz occurs on weekends. “It’s complicated,” he said.

Ordinance review may extend beyond bandit signs.

“I don’t know if it will be a complete rewrite. There are other elements to this that we’ve covered but not really tackled, such as the banner signs. The banners are a new … we don’t really have a definition for them currently. The LED signs, there is a pending ordinance not yet implemented,” Mr. Lawson said. “I thought we should probably tackle signs as a whole. That is a bigger bite than just bandits signs by themselves.”

The Sussex County Post delivers news from Georgetown and southern Delaware. Follow @SussexPost on Twitter.

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