Sussex P&Z recommends against signage moratorium

The Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission met last week to review and discuss their recommendation regarding a proposed moratorium on the County’s acceptance of special-use exception applications for off-premises signs.

The draft ordinance, which was introduced by Councilman George Cole on July 28, states that the Sussex County Council “views the placement of off-premises signs as an important public-safety issue” and believes that “the recent proliferation of off-premises signs has a detrimental effect on the safety and welfare of the citizens of Sussex County.”

If approved, the moratorium would direct the Sussex County Planning & Zoning office to decline applications for special-use exceptions for off-premises signs for a period of six months, which could be “extended, modified or terminated at any time by a majority vote” of the council.

The proposed moratorium was designed to allow the County “a reasonable time period for the review and study of off-premises signs, the preparation of proposed legislation to address resultant issues and the consideration of said legislation.”

The commission held a public hearing on the issue at its Aug. 13 meeting but deferred voting on a recommendation because two of the five members were not in attendance.

At its Aug. 27 meeting, the majority of the Planning & Zoning Commission members voiced their opposition to a moratorium.

“I just think a moratorium on signs — I don’t see where that’s needed. I think what we need to do is get an ordinance done,” said Commissioner Irwin G. “I.G.” Burton III. “I think we should put ourselves on the front burner and get an ordinance together.”

Burton suggested there should be more discussion between the Board of Adjustment and the council as to what action they were seeking.

“I don’t know that we need a moratorium. I think I could be in support of a moratorium of say, six months, if I had assurances that at the end of those six months that we would indeed have an ordinance in place,” added Commissioner Rodney Smith. “I would be aghast if I voted for a moratorium, and after five months or five months and two weeks we found that there was no forward momentum… We deal with our issues, and this sign issue is under the Board of Adjustment.”

Smith offered to represent the commission and attend a Board of Adjustment meeting to get their input about signage issues within the county.

“I would be only too happy going to make my time and energy available as a liaison of sorts to the Board of Adjustment, to attend one of their hearings and wait afterward, to listen to their concerns and bring them back to the ladies and gentlemen gathered here at the Planning & Zoning,” he said.

Planning & Zoning Director Lawrence Lank told the commission that the council began considering a moratorium following the receipt of a letter from the Board of Adjustment related to signs.

The letter to the council stated, “We request that council review this section to determine if any changes are required.”

“The intent of the council was, because of the concerns of the Board,” said Lank, “was to create a moratorium that would allow for the board, the commission and the council and some interested parties … to sit down with the team of council and staff to resolve the sign issues so we could prepare an ordinance.”

“I think the Board of Adjustment wrote a very thoughtful and measured letter about their concerns regarding the off-premises signs,” said Commissioner Martin L. Ross.

“The purpose of the moratorium is to put something on hold because there is a rash of consequence. In this case, this ordinance was announced, that we were considering a moratorium. Typically, if there was some kind of a crisis, there would be a line out of the office, all the way out to the Circle, of applicants trying to beat the action of the moratorium,” Ross said.

“But there is no line, there is no queue of off-premises billboards. Things are very normal, so I really don’t see what a moratorium is going to get us. I think we’re better off, as Mr. Burton and Mr. Smith have stated, to roll up our shirt sleeves and try to address issues the Board of Adjustment so thoughtfully raised.”

Commission Chairman Robert C. Wheatley agreed with his colleagues that a moratorium did not seem to be the best approach.

“I think a moratorium creates undue pressure. I think it would be more difficult to reach a reasonable ordinance to answer all the concerns… I think we should proceed posthaste and act on the concerns that the Board of Adjustment did very ably outline for council, and let’s get it done.”

The Commission voted 4-0 to recommend Sussex County Council not establish a moratorium on the acceptance of special-use exception applications for off-premises signs, with Commissioner Michael B. Johnson abstaining from the discussion and vote.

The recommendation now goes back before the council, which will meet on Tuesday, Sept. 15, at 10 a.m.