Sussex County held a workshop to review its signage ordinance earlier this week, following the approval of a six-month moratorium on applications for off-premises signs.
The workshop was attended by members of the Sussex County Council, Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission, Board of Adjustment, staff and legal counsel, along with interested parties, including representatives from sign companies, citizens and Georgetown attorney David Hutt.
“Today’s format is such that we staff and the legal team can hear from officials around the room as it relates to specifics involving the sign ordinance,” said County Administrator Todd Lawson. “Today’s exercise is for us to hear some direction, get some feedback so we can go forward with making changes, improvements to the current County Code.”
Assistant County Attorney Vince Robertson reviewed that “on-premises signs” are signs directing attention to a business on the same premises where the sign is maintained.
An off-premises sign is defined as, “a sign directing attention to a business, commodity, service or entertainment conducted, sold or offered elsewhere than upon the premises where the sign is maintained.”
Robertson said off-premises signs are not a use permitted by right anywhere in the county, and are expressly prohibited in certain zoning districts. There are six districts, however, where an off-premises sign can be approved through the County’s Board of Adjustment.
“Do they have to show a hardship for these variances?” asked Councilman George Cole. “Don’t they have to?”
“Typically, what will happen is they’ll apply for a special-use exception for a billboard,” said Assistant County Attorney James Sharp. “If they don’t meet the height, setback, separation, square footage requirements, they have to request a variance.”
Sharp said there are five standards, one being exceptional practical difficulty.
“We address all of them,” said BOA Member John Mills of the hearings on the applications.
There were also discussions as to how the square footage of a sign that was not square or rectangular in its overall shape was calculated.
Director Lawrence Lank of Planning & Zoning said that, in a lot of cases, the County calculates by squaring out the lettering.
“We typically don’t — sometimes, not all the time — calculate a logo, as long as it’s not a word,” he said, adding that, typically, his office does not address “open” and “welcome” signs.
When discussing produce stand signs, Lawson asked, “Is a picture of a tomato before a produce stand a sign or not?”
Electric message centers, or LED signs, are permitted in five zoning districts as on-premises signs, with each message being displayed for a minimum of 8 seconds, with the message change to occur in one second or less. Scrolling or flashing messages on LED signs are prohibited.
As an example, a photo of real estate company’s sign located in the Rehoboth Beach area was displayed.
“This sign also highlights one of the questions I think the County has faced because, obviously, the ‘wooded homesites with bay views’ are not on Route 1 by Big Fish Grill. The question being is it an on-premises or off-premises sign?” said Hutt.
“I think the County has historically said that’s an on-premises sign, because they’re advertising homes built by Schell… Just a thought as people move forward.”
Lank gave a similar example of a liquor store’s sign advertising specific brands of alcohol. Mills gave the example of a business that has more than one location.
“We’re seeing in some instances on-premises signs being positioned in front of an office or something, which is theoretically under construction, or not under construction or there’s no business operating there,” added Cole. “There ought to be a correlation that if you’re going to have an on-premises sign there, that’s in business doing business, and not a proposed business. Because we’re seeing that as an end-run, getting a sign up and circumventing some things.”
Cole later noted that an LED off-premises sign in Sussex County had been granted a special-use exception with 11 variances and questioned how that happened.
“Because they convinced us that they met the standard,” said Mills.
Councilman Rob Arlett queried whether the sign companies are aware of the County Code.
Lynn Rogers of Rogers Signs Co., a former county councilman, said his company has a checklist they use to educate potential clients.
“We give them an education process before we give them a sign.”
There was also discussion about feather signs (vertical flags), which are not currently covered in the County’s sign ordinance.
Mills said the fee for being in violation of the County’s sign ordinance also needs to be reviewed.
“I sometimes think the person in violation finds a larger market benefit from having an illegal sign than the penalty imposes.”
“We’ve almost heard anecdotally that that’s the cost of doing business,” agreed Robertson regarding the $25 fee for being out of compliance.
Currently, a violation of the Zoning Code could result in being found guilty of a misdemeanor and a $100 fine per day; however, it requires Court action.
Jeff Leonard, outdoor advertising and roadside control manager for the Delaware Department of Transportation, said that, through the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, states must provide “effective control” or face penalties of up to 10 percent of annual federal funding. The controlled routes within Sussex County are Routes 1, 13, 113 and 404/9.
Federal regulations include regulations on sign size (a maximum area of 1.200 square feet, with no possibility of a variance), spacing, lighting and setbacks.
Leonard said the DelDOT regulations were “pretty much chiseled into stone” when they were handed down by the federal government.
Bandit signs (small staked signs) are viewed as off-premises signs and are only allowed in six zones, if approved by the Board of Adjustment.
Cole said that, in previous years, the County had worked with DelDOT to remove signs placed in the State’s right-of-ways, but in a recent letter from DelDOT was told to stop the removals.
“We want to work with the County,” said Leonard. “The issue that comes into play is how do we authorize your folks to operate within the right-of-way and still meet the criteria that we have to follow — we have to remove the sign, we have to document it, we have to photograph it… You guys cannot fine for something that is placed in the right-of-way.”
Leonard said that DelDOT’s deputy attorney general is working on figuring out how to make the process work.
Jay Sammons of DelDOT said that, so far in 2015, he has removed 1,847 bandit signs in the State’s right-of-way. In 2014, he removed 947.
Commissioner Martin L. Ross said he believes the working group should focus on the off-premises signs first, “so that we can relieve the moratorium status.”
“It’s my belief that the sign issue is a commerce issue,” he said. ‘I think we always have to keep in mind that we don’t want to make our county a hard place to do business… It’s just not a good thing for us to do. I don’t think we want to be the tough cop. Obviously, we need rules, but let’s not make rules that are so egregious that people can’t do business here.”
Ross said that, as Sussex County is a tourism destination, signage is important for all businesses, no matter their size or location.
“There’s a lot of people who own small businesses that signs are very, very important to,” he said. “We’re not here to be punitive or judge what looks good or bad… Government is never a good judge of what’s good or bad.”
He recommended that the County not look to reinvent the wheel with a lot of the regulations, consider streamlining the Planning & Zoning Department as a “one-stop-shop” for sign permitting and elevate penalties accordingly.
Robertson said the working group would continue to meet in the coming months to address the issues and concerns brought up at the workshop.
“The idea is to really hit the ground running on this,” he said, “because we don’t want the moratorium to be out there for a long time — really, as short as possible.”
He added that those interested in joining the working group should contact Lawson.