On-premise sign revision tied to property owner concerns

GEORGETOWN – A section of Sussex County code governing placement of on-premise signs has undergone a facelift.

Sussex County Council at its July 25 meeting unanimously approved an ordinance amending county code following a presentation by county staff and a public hearing.

According to Sussex County Planning and Zoning Director Janelle Cornwell, issues impacting on-premise business advertising have arisen since county council’s reforming sign ordinance approval in October 2016.

The way the code was written in the 2016 amendment a person with an on-premise sign cannot put their sign on their property if it is within 50 feet of a billboard that could be on an adjacent property, Ms. Cornwell explained.

“So, the intent of this ordinance is to amend that to allow for an on-premise sign to be located within 50 feet of a billboard,” said Ms. Cornwell. “However, a billboard could not be located within 50 feet of the on-premise sign.”

Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission by unanimous 5-0 vote recommended approval of the amendment to county code following a public hearing at its July 13 meeting.

County councilman Rob Arlett cast concern that the amendment may be a potential loophole.

Sussex County Councilman Rob Arlett

“My concern is: is this a potential loophole to circumvent the original intent?” said Mr. Arlett. “The separation; they have to be different parcels. Is that a correct statement?

“I don’t think it has to be a different parcel,” said Ms. Cornwell. “The issue we’ve run into, is that there is a billboard that is now non-conforming and is on an adjacent property that the current property owner cannot put a sign on their property because of the circumstances of their property and the location of the billboard on the adjacent property.”

“I guess that is my question: the clarification of an adjacent parcel,” said Mr. Arlett. “Legally, it is a different parcel?”

“The way it reads right now is it doesn’t matter if it’s on the same parcel or an adjacent one,” said Assistant County Attorney Jamie Sharp. “I think one of the issues that had come up was that previously before we adopted the sign ordinance last year you could potentially have one or some of these non-conforming ones that were very close to the property line. And that would have made it difficult for someone to place an on-premise sign on their own property because an off-premises sign was on another property. That was I think the issue that came up before the staff after the amendment was adopted.”

“I would concur,” said Mr. Arlett. “My concern is … let’s say somebody owns two parcels. In theory, it’s the same person. Somebody has a billboard on the one. Number one you had a billboard. Somebody wanted to advertise other businesses that are not located on that parcel. Now, the business model is being shifted where one wants to create a business on that parcel. So, the business model is changing. Will this perhaps be a loophole to prevent the original intent of separation?”

“Perhaps. I mean you’re basically saying the way it would be written under this ordinance is … if you could put the billboard up first, your on-premise sign could then be placed closer within that 50 feet, whether it’s on your property, on your neighbor’s property or if you own the property next door. So, there is that possibility,” said Mr. Sharp. “One of the other problems that sometimes has come up and I think staff has seen this as well is that there is a billboard on there and somebody wants to develop their property for a business and maybe has difficulty because of their storm-water management, parking. Maybe they are constrained otherwise that putting that on-premise sign they may have to be within that 50 feet.”

Mr. Arlett asked if it is “feasible for somebody that wants to actually create a business, a brick and mortar building, with an on-premise sign that they have to at that point in time prioritize what they want to do on their business model and perhaps remove the billboard?”

“That is quite possible. But that’s something they would have to determine,” said Ms. Cornwell.

“My concern is, is this a potential loophole to circumvent the original intent?” said Mr. Arlett.

“It is possible,” said Ms. Cornwell. “But I think we’ve also seen the fact that we’ve had a couple of business owners come into the office and we haven’t been able to issue permits because there is a billboard next door.”

“Did they own the billboard?” said Mr. Arlett.

“No, it was on a separate parcel of land. They then cannot have an on-premise sign on their property to advertise their business,” Ms. Cornwell said. “That is what we have run into in the office.”

“Can we adjust language … to as it’s got to be a separate parcel, separate owner,” said Mr. Arlett.

Council president Vincent interjected, “This has gone through planning and zoning?”

“It has,” said Ms. Cornwell.

“They (P &Z) approved this with 5-0,” said Mr. Vincent.

Council members I.G. Burton, George Cole, Sam Wilson Jr., Michael Vincent and Mr. Arlett cast approval of the ordinance.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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