County makes progress on sign ordinance

After holding a special meeting this week to focus solely on signage regulations, the Sussex County Council has seemingly addressed all items related to its recently introduced sign ordinance.

Following months of working-group meetings, council discussions and public hearings, an ordinance to amend the code related to signs was introduced in April. However, those involved with the working group voiced concern that the introduced ordinance was not a proper reflection of their discussions.

As a result, a number of area signage companies hired Georgetown attorney David Hutt of Morris, James, Wilson, Halbrook & Bayard LLP, who also served on the working group, to create an alternate ordinance.

Since the presentation of the alternate ordinance, the council and County staff have been going through the ordinance item by item to review the differences between the introduced ordinance, the alternate ordinance and what was recommended by the Planning & Zoning Commission.

The council wrapped up outstanding questions posed by staff at Tuesday’s special meeting. At that time, it was decided that on-premises signs may be vacant for six months past the expiration date of their permits without a new application in the queue before they would be considered “abandoned.”

Councilman George Cole continued his campaign to ban electronic message centers (EMCs) on two-lane roads within the county. Councilwoman Joan Deaver was also in support of the idea.

“I am opposed to the whole idea,” said Council President Michael Vincent of banning EMCs on all two-lane roads. He added that the council had not received documents to show that signs were a distraction and the cause of accidents.

“I believe they are distracting,” added Cole. “I think they’re unsightly. I think they’re distracting.”

Arlett agreed with Vincent, stating that business owners should have the opportunity to choose where they invest their money.

“Business owners make educated decisions on where to invest their money… and on a two-lane road that is rural, they’re not going to be putting a $100,000-plus billboard there, because they could never pay for it,” added Councilman Rob Arlett. “On a rural two-lane road, it’s not going to happen.”

“Have you been through Millville lately?” asked Cole.

“That’s not rural, that’s not rural,” responded Arlett. “Millville is not rural anymore. I’m sorry, it is not.”

Cole said he wanted to raise the standards in Sussex County, stating that towns such as Millville, Millsboro and Bethany Beach have banned billboards.

Vincent, Arlett and Councilman Sam Wilson agreed that EMCs should be allowed on two-lane roads.

As for on-premises EMCs, “animation,” such as fading and dissolving, would be permitted under the proposed ordinance, while flashing, streaming and real-time video would be prohibited. The message displayed must be fixed for a period of at least 10 seconds, with a transition time of 1 second.

Currently, there is no separation distance requirement between off-premises and on-premises EMCs in the County’s code. Cole stated he didn’t believe the two should be allowed on the same parcel of land.

Conversions of non-conforming off-premises signs to off-premises EMCs are to be prohibited.

Non-conforming off-premises signs would be allowed to be repaired or replaced in the event of a natural disaster, but could not be bigger or taller than they were prior to being destroyed. The sign owner could apply for a front-yard and side-yard setback variance.

For the replacement of existing off-premises signs, however, they may not be greater in size or height than what the code allows. The sign owner may apply for a front-yard and side-yard setback variance on them as well.

Periodic maintenance of non-conforming off-premises signs will be allowed, unless abandoned.

County staff were asked to make the changes to the introduced ordinance and bring it back before the council. Each change will be read individually as an amendment to the introduced ordinance.

Currently, there is a moratorium placed on the acceptance of applications of off-premises signs within the county. That is set to expire on Aug. 15. The Sussex County Council will next meet on Tuesday, July 19, at 10 a.m.