County defers vote on moratorium for off-premise signs

The Sussex County Council this week deferred voting on a proposed moratorium on off-premise signs, following a public hearing.

“Typically, what you’d consider off-premise is more of a billboard-type application, but there are small ones also,” said Lawrence Lank, director of Planning & Zoning.

County Administrator Todd Lawson said the County is currently in the process of trying to schedule a signage workshop to address the council’s concerns.

“There is an intent to bring together the County Council, Planning & Zoning Commission, the Board of Adjustment — all 15 members — along with our legal staff, our Planning & Zoning staff, and walk through the ordinance as a whole,” he said. “From that point we will come back and get to work on introducing a new ordinance from the feedback we would receive.”

During the public hearing, Georgetown attorney David Hutt, who has represented numerous applicants’ billboard applications over the last several years, spoke in opposition to the moratorium and offered his assistance to the council moving forward.

Hutt stated that he has paid attention to the council’s sign discussions over the last two months and noticed they had changed focus.

“At the first meeting where signs were discussed, the issue that arose was bandit signs. Everyone focused on the issue between DelDOT and county council about who should be policing these bandit signs.

“The next meeting focused on a couple of individual signs. LED signs were mentioned, in particular, and flashing lights and animated things on these signs. Those comments were all obviously about on-premise signs, because at the time of that discussion there wasn’t one LED billboard in Sussex County.”

Hutt said the only off-premise LED sign was just recently erected in front of Hocker’s Supercenter on Route 26 in Clarksville and that other LED signs discussed by the Council were granted special-use exceptions as on-premise signs.

“The mystery to me is how a discussion on bandit signs and LED on-premise signs results in a moratorium of off-premise signs.”

Hutt said that, to his knowledge, the County only has one application pending for a special-use exception for an off-premise sign.

“But you’re likely to have more in the next six months. Frankly, in the last eight years you’ve had 82 applications for billboards,” he said. “This year, to my knowledge, the board has handled 14 requests and has denied, in part or in whole, five. For the Board of Adjustment, that is a high percentage of denials for those types of applications, which tells me the Board is carefully considering those applications on a case-by-case basis, as they arise.”

Billboards are highly regulated on a national, state and local level, Hutt said, adding that he believes a moratorium is not the correct way to address signage concerns the council may have.

“As council is aware, a moratorium is probably the most extraordinary tool in your legislative toolbox. That’s because it takes away all the property owners’ rights with respect to whatever that moratorium issue is. In this case, it affects all property owners with land zoned C-1 or CR-1.

“You typically think of a moratorium arising in a crisis or emergency situation, to address a particular need… That’s simply not the case in this matter. There’s no crisis. There’s no emergency. The sign ordinance has existed for many years in its current condition.”

The draft moratorium states, “Sussex County Council believes that the current County Code provisions do not sufficiently address the safety issues and its other concerns with off-premise signs and that the continued approval of off-premise signs under the current County Code provisions will exacerbate the issues associated with these signs.”

Hutt stated that he had yet to hear what the specific related safety issues are.

“I think it’s important to distinguish between them, because the complaints that council has been talking about has related to on-premise signs, and yet the answer is a moratorium on off-premise signs.”

“So your objection is to a moratorium, period?” asked Councilwoman Joan Deaver.

“Correct,” answered Hutt.

Hutt said he had reviewed the Sussex County Board of Adjustment’s April letter to the council, which Councilman George Cole had previously stated was the impetuous to start discussions.

“The April 6, 2015, letter doesn’t ask the council enact a moratorium because it can’t handle the volume of applications or something to do with the applications,” said Hutt. “Instead, the letter states, ‘We request that council review this section,’ meaning the signs section of the Code, ‘to determine if any changes are required.’

“It’s also important, I think, to note that that letter wasn’t just about off-premise signs. It mentioned the other types of signs council has indicated it has concerns with, including bandit signs and on-premise signs, and the LED signs in particular.”

He asked that council consider “what is the specific, actual detrimental effect on public safety that appears to be the basis mentioned in your moratorium” and the Board’s letter, “which contains in it what I think is the more appropriate tool in your toolbox, which is actually a legislative review process of that ordinance. It doesn’t require a moratorium to undergo that legislative review process. You can just undertake that process.”

Hutt said that he has spoken with the council’s legal staff and offered his assistance to them, but also extend it to the council, as well.

“I’m ready and willing and able to offer whatever assistance I can in whatever legislative review process the council undertakes.”

“The intent is not to outlaw signs. We’ve got some problems, and we need to fix them. Safety is an issue,” said Cole, adding that other jurisdictions have made note of safety concerns regarding signs.

Cole said the bandit signs were easy to deal with, because they are temporary in nature.

“On-premise signs could affect a person’s livelihood. We don’t want to do that,” he said. “The off-premise signs, because of their location on the side of the road, and again the size and setback from the road, et cetera, et cetera, is a distraction. So I thought it was the best avenue… Sometimes the government moves slow.”

He added that Hutt’s comments and recommendations were on file from the County’s previous signage discussions, and would be noted and possibly incorporated into future discussions, “or have you sit at the table, or somebody of equal value.”

“I will personally invite you to sit at our table,” said Councilman Sam Wilson.

Nancy Chernoff of Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. also spoke at the meeting, stating she believed there was confusion amongst the council members as to what a digital billboard is.

“Digital billboards do not flash. They do not have animation. They are seamless,” she said. “I believe the one Mr. Hocker put up is the same technology. It’s very advanced technology — it eliminates any of the flashing and blinking, as opposed to what you’re seeing as on-premise signs.”

Chernoff also stated that billboards are highly regulated, not just on the county level.

A public hearing for the proposed moratorium was held last week before the Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission; however, no one from the public spoke in favor of or against the draft.

Planning Commissioner Bob Wheatley stated that he was somewhat confused as to the reasoning behind the proposed moratorium.

“When you read the letter from the Board of Adjustment, it says nothing about a moratorium. It just points out that they’re getting a lot of applications and they noted several areas” of concern, he said.

“That’s what led to the initial discussion by council,” explained solicitor Vince Robertson. “It was a combination of their own concerns, the Board of Adjustment’s concerns, and it all came together, and as a result of that they felt a moratorium was appropriate.”

Planning & Zoning deferred voting on a recommendation to the council until the entire commission could be present. At the time of the public hearing, commissioners Rodney Smith and Michael Johnson were absent.

If approved, the moratorium would direct the Sussex County Planning & Zoning office to decline applications for special-use exceptions for off-premise signs for a period of six months.

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