County officials continue signage discussions

The Sussex County Council this week discussed at length a proposed ordinance to amend the County Code related to signs.

Public hearings were held recently before the Planning & Zoning Commission, as well as County Council, at which time many voiced their concerns about the proposed ordinance, with many 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.

At the June 8 county council meeting, the council was provided a 10-page document, with items numbered 1 to 48, to go over 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.

The council agreed that a purpose statement should be added to the proposed ordinance. One was not provided in the introduced ordinance or the alternate ordinance.

“Signs including outdoor advertising structures are herein regulated with the intent of regulating excess signage, encouraging the positive economic development of the county, preserving and improving tourism views, promoting the safety of the traveling public, protecting property values in residential and non-residential areas, preventing overcrowding of the land and excess clutter, and protecting the aesthetics of the County,” reads the proposed purpose statement.

While the council reviewed items such as signage per street or road frontage, a consensus was not reached.

The introduced ordinance would limit signs to one per parcel, eliminating permission for one sign per street or road frontage. The alternate ordinance would restore the allowance of a sign per parcel or road frontage, which was supported by P&Z.

“That seems crazy,” said Councilman George Cole, suggesting that one billboard on the corner where roads intersected would suffice.

Assistant County Attorney Jamie Sharp said the rule would most likely be used for on-premises signs.

“An example would be, off the top of my head, Rehoboth Mall, which has two distinct entrances off of two separate roads,” said Vince Robertson, assistant county attorney. “Under this proposal, they would get just one on-premises sign — either on Route 1 or Route 24. They wouldn’t get both.”

Councilman Rob Arlett asked if perhaps council could limit it to a sign per entrance. The council said they would revisit the topic.

For off-premises signs, the introduced ordinance does not distinguish between two-lane and four-lane roads, while the alternate ordinance does. The P&Z recommended adopting the alternate ordinance. The council said they would revisit the issue.

In discussing off-premises sign setbacks, Cole called attention to two-lane roads possibly expanding in the future, which he believes would require a 40-foot setback for an off-premises sign, as opposed to 25 feet.

Cole said it would be costly, with the Delaware Department of Transportation potentially purchasing the right-of-ways to move signs.

“To me, it’s strange to think we have to have them that close.”

Cole said he would personally like to not see digital billboards on any two-lane roads in Sussex County.

“Why are you against that?” asked Arlett.

“The aesthetics of it and the impact of it on a two-lane road is greater than on a four-lane road…” replied Cole.

As for electronic message centers, the introduced ordinance proposed to have a special-use exception required for all on-premises signs. The alternate ordinance removed the special-use requirement, which was supported by P&Z.

“I would think this would greatly increase the number of applications before the Board of Adjustment,” said Jamie Sharp, assistant county attorney.

The council agreed to remove the special-use exception requirement.

Another topic discussed was whether variances for off-premises signs should be allowed at all. The original proposed ordinance does not allow for variances, while the alternate ordinance removed the prohibition.

The P&Z recommended prohibiting variances for off-premises signs, but only for new billboards. Those who wish to replace billboards already in existence would be able to apply for a variance.

The council could not come to a consensus on whether off-premises electronic message centers should be prohibited, per the introduced ordinance.

The council also said they needed more time to think over transition requirements for electronic message centers, and display transitions, such as “animation.”

“We don’t want to do anything that’s going to be really, really detrimental to them advertising their business,” said Council President Michael Vincent of business owners. “Personally, I’m not sold on on-premises signs with no animation.”

The council went along with the Planning & Zoning Commission’s recommendations to adopt the alternate ordinance’s recommendations of retaining the original definition of multi-faced signs in the current code.

The council, with the recommendation of P&Z, amended the definition of wall sign, and limited their size to 150 square feet, as it would be easier to enforce.

A moratorium was placed on the acceptance of all off-premises sign applications by the County’s Planning & Zoning Office in September 2015, to give the council and staff the opportunity to revise the ordinance in its entirety.

The moratorium, which was extended in March, is set to expire June 15. The council is expected to once again extend the moratorium at its Tuesday, June 14, meeting.

To view the spreadsheet prepared for council, view the council’s meeting packet at