With recommendations, county’s sign ordinance reform set for next step

GEORGETOWN — Group therapy is finished.

Recommendations are packaged.

On deck: Sussex County Council, Board of Adjustment and Planning and Zoning will mold a working group’s recommendations into an ordinance draft to revamp county code pertaining to signs and billboards.

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GEORGE COLE

“And from my point of view, there will be new rules. There will be some changes,” said county councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, after the last scheduled working group session on Jan. 8.

For several months, the working group committee – comprised of representatives from Sussex County Council, Board of Adjustment, Planning and Zoning, sign companies, developers, Delaware Department of Transportation, attorneys and others – met to address issues that encompassed billboards, electronic message centers (LED signs), scenic byways, bandit signs, on-premises signs and enforcement.

In a series of meetings, the working committee reviewed current code, targeted issues and areas of concern and offered suggestion/ solutions. Comparison to other counties and states was also included.

“I appreciate the feedback that we’ve had,” said assistant county attorney Jamie Sharp, the county’s attorney for the Board of Adjustment. “We’ve had consensus on a lot of things and we’ve had disagreement on some things. I respected that as well.”

Efforts for code reform gathered steam with a letter to county council from the county’s Board of Adjustment, whose members noted present regulations lack definition and clarity in the board’s attempts to address special-use exception applications.

Attorney David Hutt, who specializes in sign ordinance issues and has represented many clients seeking special-use exceptions, said the letter was sent to council because Board of Adjustment members indicated “the code doesn’t match the industry; there is something out of alignment here. We don’t see variances for on-premises signs because the code is such that it doesn’t require a variance, because you can work within the parameters of the ordinance. You can’t work within the parameters of the off-premise sign ordinance without a variance right now. I think that was part of the goal here … that we can reflect the industry standards and what’s going on.”

“Right, absolutely,” said Board of Adjustment member Bud Rickard.

Ben Phillips, of Phillips Signs, said his primary concern is “to make sure that when you are discussing this, you separate it. On-premises and off-premises signs are two different animals.”

Portions of the county code are several decades old. Another issue is DelDOT and county regulations regarding signs sometimes do not match.

Former county councilman Lynn Rogers, of Rogers Sign Company, recommended that county regulations match those of DelDOT, which has regulation jurisdiction on Del. 1, U.S. 113, U.S. 13 and SR 9 – which he coined the Big 4.

Mr. Cole believes council and the county are ready to move forward.

“I even think the industry – this committee that we’ve been working with here – has more influence by the people who have interest in billboards; either they put them up or they use them,” said Mr. Cole. “So this committee has been top heavy with that input so at the end of this process it will be difficult for them to say that we didn’t hear them. We have heard from them, we have heard their concerns. We’ve seen what they do in adjoining counties, so I think we’ve got a good feel of the way we ought to address it here.”

“The way I foresee it happening; is we’ll meet, we’ll go through what we just saw here probably and get the feel of the elected officials plus the other two boards – the Board of Adjustment and Planning and Zoning,” Mr. Cole said. “From that point our staff then will put together a draft. We’ll revisit that and then once we get a draft that we like it will get introduced and it will have to go through a public hearing in front of Planning and Zoning and county council; not Board of Adjustment.”

Given that timetable, Mr. Cole almost guarantees an extension of the six-month moratorium on acceptance of applications for billboards and other off-premise signage will be needed. County council approved the moratorium on Sept. 15, 2015.

“It’s a land-use issue and my understanding is – I just had a conversation with the attorney – that six months will expire and we will need additional time,” said Mr. Cole. “By the time we get these other two meetings and a draft we’ll have a better feel of how much more time we will have to extend the moratorium. It would be irresponsible to lift the moratorium without new rules.”

One general recommendation is to “keep code changes simple and easy to understand.”

Following are some of the working committee highlighted bullet-points:

Billboards

Committee recommendations for off-premises signs – billboards:

  • the county should establish different standards for billboards along two-lane roads, such as Rt. 9 and Rt. 54, versus four-lane roads;
  • size should be 300 square feet for two-lane roads and 600 square feet for four-lane roads; current allotment is 300 square feet per side.

Electronic Message Centers

Recommendations for electronic message centers are that a permit and special-use exemption be required for all electronic message billboards including existing billboards being converted to EMC’s. These message centers should have a hold for eight seconds, with a suggestion that all EMC’s have Amber Alert capability.

Bandit Signs

Illegal bandit signs, temporary signage that often pops up over weekends and are frequently seen at residential development/sales, posed several issues, including shared enforcement with DelDOT, location of sign owners and determining right-of-way in assessing fines.

The group noted that offenders pay up to $1,500 in fines per month, which is seen as the cost of doing business. Bandit signs can also create a competitive disadvantage if not properly enforced, the committee noted.

Committee recommendations include a permitting process utilizing a sticker system, increased fines for illegal signs and increased enforcement.

Enforcement

Mr. Cole supports enforcement as long as it doesn’t tax the county’s tax base.

“We don’t want the tax base subsidizing enforcement of the billboards. Maybe increase the sign permits, increase the fines and other things that will help pay. We may need a sign czar; we may have to have one individual dedicated – maybe two depending on how big the problem is, if there is a problem,” Mr. Cole said. “I think it will be a juggling act with us, how the county enforces it and what will it take to enforce it.”

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

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