Workshop on signage on deck following County Council’s moratorium approval

GEORGETOWN – With moratorium approval targeting acceptance of applications for billboards and other off-premise signage, Sussex County leaders are gearing to tackle the crux of the matter.

Sussex County government will host a Sept. 29 workshop focusing “on the sign ordinance as it is currently written” and potential ordinance revision, said County Administrator Todd Lawson.

The 9 a.m. workshop at the County’s West Administration Complex will include County Council, the County’s Board of Adjustment and Planning & Zoning Commission members and County legal staff. Invitations have been extended to Delaware’s Department of Transportation, local attorney David Hutt, who specializes in sign ordinance issues, and others.

“Again, the focus of this small workshop is to gather feedback and direction from you all as it relates to the way the current ordinance governs signs,” Mr. Lawson said. “Our concept at this point is to develop a sign working group whereby specific members beyond just the workshop would work on the recommendations for the ordinance. “

That working group was not yet finalized at the time of Mr. Lawson’s workshop update at the Sept. 15 County Council meeting during which council approved by a 4-1 vote a six-month moratorium on acceptance of special-use exception applications for off-premise signs.

Mr. Lawson said the group would include maybe one member from County Council Board of Adjustment and Planning & Zoning Commission, County staff and legal team, plus Mr. Hutt, DelDOT and stakeholders beyond county government, such as local sign companies, the development community, real estate community and home-builders.

“I would think before we actually structure the working group that we would come up with a list of recommendations for the council to review,” said Mr. Lawson.

County Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, whose concerns regarding public safety and visual distraction precipitated the moratorium movement, suggested that County staff, the Board of Adjustment and attorneys familiar with signage issues prioritize issues.

“If we could maybe have a priority list of the problem areas, as opposed to just going through the whole ordinance; I mean a lot of it doesn’t need to be debated, or we might open up something we don’t need to,” said Mr. Cole.

“We’re going to have a specific agenda to tackle the priority areas,” said Mr. Lawson, adding the team has already determined that a “lot of the ordinance right now does regulate some of the things that we’ve already heard; it’s just a matter of regulation. So there is an education piece.”

County Councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, asked that home-owners associations, and residential and commercial representatives be considered in workshop discussion.

Effective with County Council’s Sept. 15 approval, a six-month moratorium was placed on Planning & Zoning department’s acceptance of applications for special-use exception for off-premises signs. The moratorium may be extended, modified or terminated at any time by a majority vote of County Council.

In approving the moratorium, County Council members Joan Deaver, D-Lewes; Mr. Arlett, Mr. Cole and Michael Vincent, R-Seaford rejected Planning & Zoning Commissions’ 4-0 recommendation rendered on Aug. 27 that Council not pursue the moratorium.

Planning & Zoning Commissioners I.G. Burton, Rodney Smith, Marty Ross and Robert Wheatley opposed the moratorium. Their consensus was there is no urgent need and ordinance review/revision would be the more practical route.

Commissioner Michael Johnson, who was not in attendance at P & Z’s public hearing on the moratorium, abstained from that vote.

In April, County Council received a correspondence from the Board of Adjustment regarding issues with the County’s sign ordinance.

County Councilman Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, vehemently opposed the countywide moratorium and in fact proposed a restricted moratorium targeting District 3, represented by Ms. Deaver, and District 4, represented by Mr. Cole.

“I make a motion that George and Joan are having problems with their districts and that the moratorium goes on there. The rest of us don’t have that problem,” said Mr. Wilson.

His motion that was defeated 4-1.

“I can’t vote for that. I appreciate Mr. Wilson’s ideas but I don’t think it is practical,” said Ms. Deaver.

Assistant County Attorney Vincent Robertson questioned the legality of Mr. Wilson’s proposal, which fueled more debate.

“I am not sure that this is appropriate because you’re singling out certain portions of the County,” Mr. Robertson said.

“We’re a County Council; we deal with county problems,” said Mr. Cole.

“Where is the problems at?” asked Mr. Wilson.

“You are treating different property owners and different residents differently throughout the county jurisdiction. I think you’d run afoul with the law,” said Mr. Robertson, noting it could also be a constitutional issue.

“I make a motion we defer that until you prove what you just said,” Mr. Wilson stated.

“I think it is probably under the equal protection clause,” said Mr. Robertson.

“Well, I’d like to see it,” said Mr. Wilson. “I’d like to see it in writing. I don’t believe it.”

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

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