Update: Code enforcement efforts reveal ‘signs’ of compliance

GEORGETOWN – It’s a sign of the times in Sussex County, Delaware.

Sussex County Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, views it as a sign of progress.

“I think we are moving in the right direction,” said Mr. Cole, following a Dec. 12 update on sign ordinance enforcement and compliance from Sussex County Planning and Zoning Director Janelle Cornwell and Steve Hickman, planning and zoning’s sign ordinance enforcer. “Billboards and signage kind of got out of hand and we lost track of it. Now maybe we can rein it in a little bit. People still can advertise. We’re not stopping it. We’re just making sure it is done properly.”

In mid-October of 2016, county council unanimously approved an amended sign ordinance that lifted a 13-month moratorium. The moratorium had stagnated the application process for new billboards in the county.

The sign ordinance overhaul governs such issues as animation, electronic message centers, separation distance between on-premise and off-premise signs, brightness, non-conformity and temporary real estate signage.

Sign enforcement officer Steve Hickman demonstrates brightness measurement in a presentation to Sussex County Council. At left is Sussex County Planning and Zoning Director Janelle Cornwell.

Since January of this year, Mr. Hickman – working second shift in darkness on some occasions – has inspected every billboard and every electronic message center for code compliance.

The inspection verdict: more than 52 complaints regarding signs have been received by the planning and zoning office.

Most complaints center on billboards regarding permitted use and electronic message centers, also known as EMCs.

The primary issue with EMC’s is brightness, Ms. Cornwell said.

The majority of the 39 violation letters issued by the planning and zoning office have been closed or rectified.

Only six remained outstanding as of the Dec. 12 presentation to county council. Examples of those, Mr. Hickman said, include EMC brightness, a billboard utilizing on-premise advertising which is not permitted, and two billboards turned into one, which also is not permitted.

‘We have had a long history of complaint-driven enforcement. If you’re riding/cruising around on your way to some place and you see what appears to be a violation, do you stop? I would hope so,” said Mr. Cole. “The complaints on these types of things – the average citizen doesn’t understand it – and I don’t like the idea that some guys are escaping because nobody is complaining, and another guy gets picked up. I’d like to be consistent.”

“I have actually been working on this since January,” said Mr. Hickman.

Ms. Cornwell noted that the county is performing on-site visits with sign companies and businesses before and after permits have been issued.

In addition, applicants no longer have to physically come into the planning and zoning office to obtain a permit. Information can be sent via email to the sign inspector.

“I think we’ve improved customer service in the permitting process. Typically, you’d always have to come in and bring your paperwork into the office,” said Ms. Cornwell. “Steve has revamped the sign permit application.  He has also made it easier for applicants that they can just email all the paperwork to Steve. He will review it. If everything is good, he’ll put it into the system. Then he’ll let them know how much the permit is going the cost. Once they send the check and it comes into the office, we will mail the permit back.”

Mr. Cole said he sees a couple sign owners “that I think are pushing the envelope on the intent or whatever and they are trying to skirt around again. How are we addressing that? Is that a legal issue? Is it interpretation? I do sense that some of that is going on now.”

“Do we have a policy in place for somebody who’s a hard-head and doesn’t want to comply,” said Mr. Cole. ” Is there like any number of times, and all of a sudden, you’re drawing the line? How do we get from the complaint to the violation?”

Ms. Cornwell said the procedure is to go out and verify if there is a complaint or violation.

“In his vehicle Steve can print out the violation letter, hand deliver it to the property owner. They are given so many days to come into compliance,” said M. Cornwell. “If they don’t we go back out and verify. It goes through our normal process and we will turn it over to the constables’ office.”

There are repeat offenders Mr. Hickman said.

The “before and after” of an illegal house wrap sign advertisement that was on SR 26.

“Sometimes, they will correct it and avoid the violation. Then like a few months later …,” said Mr. Hickman.

“Steve knows where those tricky properties are and makes sure he is staying on top of those,” said Ms. Cornwell.

“If a tricky property is tricky, can they be tricky just too often?” asked Mr. Cole.

“We are looking into that,” said Mr. Hickman.

County council’s sign ordinance blessing on Oct. 11, 2016 culminated more than a year process punctuated by a series of meetings of a working group, several ordinance proposals and alternative versions, several public hearings before county council and the planning and zoning commission and sometimes contentious discussion.

These days, Mr. Hickman is armed with new equipment, including an app and a tool that goes onto his phone. That enables him to go out into the field, take a picture and draw the box around the sign, Ms. Cornwell explained.

It will do measurement for him and tell him what the square footage of the sign is, she said.

The device also checks height, which is especially beneficial with billboard inspections. “We don’t have a ladder,” Ms. Cornwell said.

There’s also a modern light meter for determining if an electronic message center’s LED’s exceed the allotted brightness.

Councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, asked if there is a monetary fee attached to a violation.

“For us it is a notice of violation. Then, if it gets turned over to the constables’ office. When it goes to court it can be up to $100 a day that is in violation,” said Ms. Cornwell.

Mr. Arlett asked how many violations have actually reached the court level.

“None of them are in that category at this point,” said Ms. Cornwell.

“I have not had to take anybody to court yet,” said Mr. Hickman. “They have been pretty easy going, except for one …”

“Most everybody has been really responsive,” said Ms. Cornwell. “Steve has been really trying to make sure he is working with people, so they understand what is going on and the new changes.”

“I think you’ve done a good job,” said county council president Michael Vincent, R-Seaford. “The process that people can utilize makes it more customer friendly.”

“There is still a lot of work to be done, but we’re getting there,” said Mr. Hickman.

Permit tracking

The Dec. 12 presentation included an update on permit tracking. Those bullet-point highlights:

  • Permits from 2009-13 have been scanned into the county’s MUNIS system;
  • Efforts are ongoing to scan all permits going back to 1980;
  • 116 sign permits were issued this year as of Dec. 8, 2017;
  • Over 506 open permits (from 2012-16) have been closed out – from MUNIS;
  • Between 80 and 150 annual invoices are sent out on a monthly basis.

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

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