Sussex County approves revised signage ordinance

After nearly five hours of discussion on Tuesday, Oct. 11, the Sussex County Council approved its revised signage ordinance.

The council has been discussing signs since April of last year, following a letter from the Sussex County Board of Adjustment, which led to the entire ordinance being reviewed and a moratorium on off-premises sign applications.

A working group was formed, composed of County staff, members of the county council, Planning & Zoning Commission and Board of Adjustment, along with professionals from the signage and real estate industries.

Following the introduction of an ordinance in April, those in the signage industry voiced concerns that the document did not reflect the months of work the working group had done.

The ordinance has since been revamped to, for the most part, reflect the recommendations of the working group. There were still a few points of concern, which were voiced by Georgetown attorney David Hutt of Morris James Wilson Halbrook & Bayard LLP, who spoke on behalf of Clear Channel Outdoor, Geyer Signs, Hocker Signs, Jack Lingo Realtors, J.D. Sign Company, Ocean Atlantic, Phillips Signs Inc., Premier Outdoor Media LLC, Rogers Sign Co. Inc. and Timmons Outdoor Advertising.

Hutt, who volunteered his time to the working group convened last year, spoke during the public hearing process and submitted a letter to the council following the recommendations of Planning & Zoning related to the second proposed ordinance.

The ordinance, which was approved on Tuesday by a vote of 5-0, included changes to a handful of items within the ordinance made since the last time it was reviewed by the council.

The new ordinance provides for temporary real estate signs with a maximum area of 32 square feet, per side, for each street frontage on which the premises abuts.

The revised ordinance also notes that electronic message center (EMC) messages must remain fixed for a minimum of 10 seconds, and the change to a new message must be accomplished in 1 second or less. The approved ordinance also allows for animation on signs, although Councilman George Cole and Councilwoman Joan Deaver voted against that provision.

Provisions for non-conforming off-premises signs were also changed to allow for non-conforming signs to be maintained unless abandoned or intentionally removed.

A number of issues brought up by Hutt and the Planning & Zoning commissioners were not changed in the ordinance. The front-yard setback for off-premises signs will be 40 feet, instead of 25 feet, as the code previously read. Separation distance between churches, schools, dwellings and public lands must be at least 150 feet from the property line.

A variance process for off-premises signs has been removed from the ordinance for EMCs, despite Hutt and sign professionals advocating the return of the process. In September, Hutt said the State of Delaware gave all of its counties the ability to enact zoning ordinances, through the State Code.

“Recognizing zoning codes, by their very nature and definition, are imprecise and imperfect, and require constant updating and changing, the State code also requires that a municipality or a county which has been given zoning authority have a process in which a property owner whose property is being impacted can appeal the impact of that zoning to a Board of Adjustment or, in certain circumstances, to the Planning & Zoning Commission.

“That’s simply a recognition of the fact that real property is something that is always unique. The look on Route 1 is not the look on Route 113 or the look on 13. Every one of those highways has a different set of facts and circumstances, and the properties are all configured differently.”

However, the variance process was not returned to the ordinance prior to the vote.

The updated ordinance can be viewed online by visiting