County chips away at proposed signage ordinance language

With all five members of the Sussex County Council seated at the dais earlier this week, after last week tabling discussions related to a sign ordinance introduced in April, signage was discussed at length by the council and County staff.

Prior to that, public hearings had been held before the Planning & Zoning Commission, as well as the council, at which many voiced their concerns about the proposed ordinance, some saying it did not reflect the months of hard work put out by the working group the County had assembled on the issue.

Georgetown attorney David Hutt of Morris James Wilson Halbrook & Bayard LLP had spoken at the public hearings 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, and even presented the council with an alternate ordinance that he said was more representative of the working group’s recommendations.

Since then, County staff has provided the council with documents that outline the differences between the ordinance introduced by the council in April, the alternate ordinance recommended by Hutt and what the Planning & Zoning Commission had recommended at its May 25 meeting.

At its June 21 meeting, the council could not come to a consensus as to how long a sign must be vacant before it is considered “abandoned.” In the introduced ordinance, no length of time is stated, but signs that have been abandoned for six months are prohibited. In the alternate ordinance, a period of six months is denoted as the length of time a sign must be vacant before being considered abandoned, something with which the Planning & Zoning Commission agreed.

Early on in the discussion, Council President Michael Vincent said going back and forth between on- and off-premises signs in the discussions gets confusing.

“I totally agree, and we recognized that in the beginning,” said County Administrator Todd Lawson. “They were so closely coupled together that we could not separate the off- and on- issue It’s really the crux of how complex this issue is, quite frankly.”

The council agreed that, although within the proposed ordinance they would not separate out the two, in continuing the day’s discussions, they would only focus on off-premises signs.

“The moratorium we placed on people was for off-premises signs,” said Vincent. “I’m sure there are people out there who might be wanting to put up off-premises signs; I don’t know… But they’re just waiting and waiting and waiting.

Originally passed on Sept. 15, 2015, the moratorium states that the Sussex County Council “views the placement of off-premise signs as an important public-safety issue” and believes that “the recent proliferation of off-premise signs has a detrimental effect on the safety and welfare of the citizens of Sussex County.”

The moratorium currently directs the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Office to decline applications for special-use exceptions for off-premise signs from the date of its adoption to Aug. 15. It also allowed for the moratorium to be “extended, modified or terminated at any time by a majority vote” of the council. This is the second time the moratorium has been extended.

“V signs” were also discussed, as they are prohibited under the introduced ordinance; however, the alternate ordinance, supported by P&Z, removed the prohibition.

The council was shown examples of existing V signs within the county, as well as a visual of the difference between a 45-degree angle and a 180-degree angle.

Kyle Gulbronson of AECOM said that, in researching other communities, they use “an angle of 60 percent or less, which would be slightly less than the 90 [degree angle].” County Councilman George Cole said that he would return to the topic at a later time.

The council also discussed whether a property owner should be allowed to have multiple signs on his property if it is located on more than one road. As the proposed ordinance is currently written, it limits signs to one per parcel, eliminating permission for one sign per street or road frontage. The alternate ordinance restores the allowance for one sign per parcel or road parcel, to which P&Z agreed. The council agreed to restore the allowance for one sign per parcel or road parcel.

In the introduced ordinance, there is no distinction between billboards that are greater than 200 square feet and billboards that are less than 200 square feet. The alternate ordinance sets different standards for the two in terms of side-yard setbacks, as does what currently exists in the code. P&Z recommended to go along with the alternate ordinance.

Vincent said he didn’t see anything wrong with P&Z’s recommendation; however, Cole said he did not agree.

“I support the ordinance that we introduced, because we’re spreading out some of this clutter,” said Cole.

He added he believed that, in the future, off-premises billboards should have a front-yard setback of 40 feet, no matter the size. Councilwoman Joan Deaver said she was in agreement.

“If you can’t read these things at 40 feet, versus 25 feet, you’d better get your eyes checked; you shouldn’t be driving,” added Cole.

The council eventually had three members who agreed to stick with what is the introduced ordinance.

The council also discussed Tuesday the separation distance between signs and churches, schools, dwellings and public lands. The introduced ordinance has a minimum separation distance of 500 feet, while the alternate ordinance returns the minimum separation distance to 300 feet (what currently exists in the Code), which was supported by P&Z.

Cole asked if the County should treat churches and schools differently.

Gulbronson noted to council that a lot of communities do not have a restriction placed on the separation distance and added that the county has had the 300-foot setback for 30 years.

Assistant County Attorney Vince Robertson asked the council to keep in mind that the definition of “dwelling” with in the county code changed last year, to where an empty lot can now be considered a “dwelling.”

The council decided to measure the distance on a radius from the edge of the sign to the property line; however, there was no discussion as to exactly how that measurement will be made.

Prohibit on digital signs on two-lane roads fails to garner majority

During the discussions of signage on two-lane roads, Cole said he would be in favor of prohibiting all digital off-premises signs on two-lane roads throughout the county.

“I think they’re unsightly. I think they’re unnecessary… Digital signs aren’t as prevalent as everybody leads us to believe. I think on our two-lane roads in Sussex County — I’m not saying on-premises… On-premises signs, I think a small-businessman needs every opportunity he can to get to get people into his business. But when it comes to digital signs on two-lane roads, like Route 9, 24, 17 — I think we don’t need, in Sussex County, digital signs.”

“I think it’s disrespectful to put them up on a two-lane road,” added Deaver.

Councilman Rob Arlett said he didn’t believe Cole would get support from the majority of the council for that and that he believed it would be discriminatory against business owners.

“If the business owner decides to invest in a digital billboard, who am I to prevent him from doing that? ... To do a complete prohibition is a little extreme.”

“In my opinion, it shows leadership, Mr. Arlett,” responded Cole. “I think the majority of people in Sussex County would support my position of a prohibition of digital signs on two-lane roads. I think the big ire people have had in this county has been since the digital signs started popping up.”

Vincent agreed with Arlett, stating he was not comfortable with such a prohibition.

“I don’t question that people have said something to George Cole, but this is about our fifth time in this room, and I have yet to have one person from the public say anything. The public isn’t showing up, so they can’t be too upset, with 240,000 people in this county, and nobody shows up to oppose them.”

Cole did not get a majority of council to support the prohibition of off-premises digital billboards on two-lane roads. County officials told the Coastal Point they don’t currently track the number of off-premises digital signs in Sussex.

Discussions of the ordinance are scheduled to continue next Tuesday, June 28, at 10 a.m. The Sussex County Council will not meet on July 5 or 12.