County council may vote on sign ordinance next week

Sussex County Council members briefly discussed the County’s proposed signage ordinance on Tuesday, Oct. 4, agreeing to review all related documents and be prepared to have a motion at the following week’s meeting.

On Sept. 22, the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission recommended changes to the proposed ordinance, with a vote of 3-0.

“I was disappointed with some of Planning & Zoning’s changes,” said Councilman George Cole. “I just thought we had made so much progress in some of these areas, and they just reversed back for some reason.

“I was also concerned there were only three of them there. A debate with only three people… Sometimes they’re on the same page, but it isn’t real stimulating. It’s nice to have a debate when you have opposing views, because sometimes you do glean some good information from people who have a different opinion.”

Council President Michael Vincent said the council had a great deal of information to consider, including a six-page letter from Georgetown Attorney David Hutt of Morris James Wilson Halbrook & Bayard LLP, who served on the sign ordinance working group. Hutt submitted the letter on Sept. 30 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, responding to the P&Z’s recommendations.

In the letter, Hutt called attention to the commission not addressing the elimination of the ability to apply for a variance for off-premises signs and Electronic Message Centers (EMCs).

“As Council is aware from the public hearings, there is no public record or even a request from the public or the Board of Adjustment for the prohibition of variances. To the contrary, as stated during each public comment period — there is not a current problem regarding the Board of Adjustment’s handling of signs…

“While some council members have expressed unsupported, personal preferences on the record, not one objective, rational reason or purpose has been offered or provided to the public regarding the prohibition on variances. And variances are the only check a member of the public has on the County’s zoning process — a process which, by its nature, takes or affects a property owner’s property rights.”

The letter states that the proposed prohibition is “arbitrary and capricious,” as signs are one of the most regulated structures in the zoning code and are often non-conforming due to the conditions on adjacent properties.

Councilwoman Joan Deaver said she favors the prohibition of EMCs, as, she said, no one in her district is in favor of them.

Councilman Rob Arlett noted that there has been a moratorium on the acceptance of variance applications for off-premises signs in effect since September 2015 and that he hopes the council will be able to take action next week on the proposed ordinance.

“I am prayerful we can come to a resolution,” he said.

Also at the Oct. 4 meeting, the council appointed County Finance Director Gina Jennings to the Task Force to Review the Financial Management Procedures of Volunteer Fire Companies, created by House Resolution 95.

“This was a concurrent resonation that passed last year in the General Assembly… It appears to be the focus of the task force to look into the fiscal management of the state’s volunteer fire companies,” said County Administrator Todd Lawson.

“In fact, the bill language itself says, once the task force is formed, the focus is to return to the General Assembly by Jan. 31 of 2017 with recommended changes and reforms to consider, in order to promote proper fiscal management and decrease the risk of embezzlement and misappropriation by members of volunteer fire companies.”

Lawson said each county has a representative serving on the task force. He said Jennings’ role for the County already has her working with fire companies throughout Sussex.

Brandy Nauman, housing coordinator and fair housing compliance officer for the County, presented the council with the Impacted Communities Study, which was required as a result of the New Horizons lawsuit.

The County did an internal evaluation of the impacted communities listed with in the Voluntary Compliance Agreement (VCA), which was a part of the New Horizons settlement.

The VCA identified 10 communities to evaluate, while the County added four additional communities — the Lucas Development, Pine Town, New Hope, West Rehoboth, Polly Branch, Dog Patch, Mount Joy, Concord, Possum Point, Coverdale Crossroads, Cedar Creek, Cool Spring, Diamond Acres and Green Top.

Nauman said there was a geographic assessment of each community, with the scope including household demographics.

Community Development & Housing staff knocked on 916 doors, making contact with 679 households, and 578 of them completed surveys. Nauman said there was a 63 percent response rate across the communities.

Of those properties, 47 percent were inhabited structures, 33 percent were vacant lots and 10 percent were vacant structures. Nauman said the average gross annual income was $25,582 per household across all 14 communities.

The data from the study will assist the County in its planning activities, including the development of its Comprehensive Plan. The data has also been incorporated into the County’s Prioritization Policy.

Those who wish to view the study may do so on the County’s website, under the Affordable and Fair Housing Resource Center.

Following Nauman’s presentation, Vincent thanked the staff for their hard work.

“It’s a great job, and we’re very blessed to have you all work for us.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, the council also revisited the High Tide Church Expansion of the Sussex County Unified Sanitary Sewer District.

The expansion will consist of 122.65 acres more or less, with a system connection charge of $5,075, based on current rates. Last week, two residents had spoken in opposition to the expansion, stating they could not afford the connection cost.

John Ashman of the County’s engineering department said he was directed to contact those who would be impacted by the expansion; however, he had trouble tracking everyone down.

He did say, from those they spoke to, they did not want to be connected or have the lateral set up for possible future connection.

If they wished to be connected in the future, the owners of the properties where the owners chose not to be connected at this time would have to return to the County individually, make the request to connect and pay the associated cost.

The council approved the extension of the district, excluding five parcels whose owners said they did not wish to be included.