Sussex County property owners are already required to properly display their 911-friendly address so that their properties can be easily located by emergency responders and others, but enforcement of the 2005 ordinance has remained only in the form of reminders – until now.
The Sussex County Council agreed at their Aug. 25 meeting that the time for strict enforcement has begun, or will as of Oct. 1. Eddie Parker, director of assessment for the county, recommended to the council on Tuesday that the county begin complaint-based enforcement activity that would begin with a letter notifying the property owner of a violation and could culminate in a $100-per-day fine for those who refuse to comply.
The ordinance requires that residences and businesses have reflective numbers displayed on a contrasting background, in plain sight of the street to which the property is addressed, for emergency workers to see.
The detailed requirements state that:
• For numbers displayed on a sign or mailbox, numbers must be at least 3 inches in height and must be located on both sides of the mailbox, for instance; and
• For numbers displayed on the structure itself, numbers must be a minimum of 4 inches in height, and face the street.
(The standards for other types of properties can be found in §73-28 of the ordinance, available at www.sussexcountyde.gov/docs/ordinances/AddressingOrdinance.pdf).
Parker noted that county staff and area emergency workers have become increasingly concerned about the lack of compliance with the addressing ordinance, noting improperly displayed addresses, as well as those that are incorrect or non-existent.
“This causes confusion for emergency responders, the fire departments and others,” he said, pointing to past efforts by the department to explain the importance of proper addressing to property owners, which he said had failed to generate sufficient compliance.
Under the enforcement policy, upon receipt of a complaint about a non-compliant property – which could be made by an emergency responder, fire company official or member of the public – county staff would investigate the complaint and verify whether the property is in compliance.
If a violation is found, the property owner would be sent a letter via mail, requesting correction of the problem within 30 days. If the problem is not corrected within that 30-day period, county staff would send a certified letter to the property owner, giving them a further 15 days to correct the problem.
If those 15 days elapse without the problem being corrected, the constable would follow up by pursuing a $50 fine in the Justice of the Peace Court. Once that fine has been assessed, the property owner would have two weeks to correct the problem before the constable would seek a maximum of a $100-per-day fine for continued violation.
“We have tried and continue to try different ideas to make the public aware,” Parker emphasized, saying that county paramedics routinely deliver a card reminding property owners of the law to properties that they notice are incorrectly addressed.
“Our concern is that we’re starting to get a number of complaints from emergency departments, as well as private citizens, concerning the lack of posted addresses,” he said, noting that the ordinance to deal with the problem was already in place from its adoption back in 2005, but that county staff were now asking for the council’s blessing to enforce that, initially on a complaint basis, instead of actively seeking out violators.
Addresses are a matter of life or death
“It’s obvious that the address is critical to emergency responders,” Parker said. “People are moving here every day from outside the area, and we need to make them aware of the requirements, and we also need to follow through with enforcement.”
Council President Vance Phillips pointed out that the original enforcement time for the requirements was supposed to come July of 2007, having given property owners two years to comply. Parker said the ordinance had required the county to give property owners public notice of when enforcement would begin, and he was requesting that be done now, with full enforcement to begin Oct. 1.
Councilman George Cole inquired as to whether there was any leeway on the fines being assessed for problems, citing two types of violations: people who haven’t posted their address at all, and those who have posted them but have them in the wrong location or size.
“I don’t think there should be an equal fine if somebody put something up but it’s not quite right,” he said.
But Parker said the ordinance, as adopted, allows no differentiation.
“The ordinance is clear. It’s black and white. You’re either in compliance or you’re not,” he said. “The intent is to get more people to comply, so that people can find them when they need to.”
Councilwoman Joan Deaver applauded the effort to improve public safety with compliance to the ordinance.
“This is a person’s life at stake, or could be,” she said, noting that she had knocked on 3,000 doors during her campaign. “And a thousand of them weren’t properly labeled,” she estimated. One said, “‘My number is on my mailbox,’” she recalled, “but the mailbox was at another location.
“Your lives are at risk,” Deaver emphasized.
Residents get reminders as enforcement looms
Parker noted that the county had previously purchased television airtime to advertise the new requirements but that it would have to invest more money to do so again as the enforcement phase begins.
Initially, the county plans to advertise the enforcement, and the addressing requirements, on the county Web site, as well as possible advertisements in local newspapers.
Councilman Michael Vincent, a veteran volunteer firefighter, had a personal take on the importance of complying with the addressing ordinance.
“I have been out there at two in the morning, and you can’t find the house. It’s tough on the families, and it’s tough on the providers,” he said.
“Sussex County has been patient long enough. This is a matter of life and death, and some people just aren’t getting the message, for whatever reason,” Vincent said. “I’m no fan of fines, certainly not as a means to generate revenue. But those who refuse to follow the law have left us no choice. Hopefully, this will catch their attention.”
Councilman Sam Wilson questioned the fairness of the fines in the event the property owner is out of town for a long period of time when notice of a violation is given.
“We’re giving them essentially a month and a half,” replied Parker. “We’re going to make every effort before we go to the J.P. courts,” he assured.
Wilson was in agreement on who really benefits from compliance.
“We want to get it into people’s heads who’s really the loser if the number’s not on the house,” he said. “It’s not us.”
Addressing Director Megan Nehrbas emphasized that installing the required numbers on a home or mail box is easy to do, with lettering and numbers available at hardware stores and large retailers.
“A relatively inexpensive investment of $10 and a few minutes of time now can prevent a costly fine later on,” Nehrbas said. “More importantly, it could save your or your loved ones’ lives.”
For more information, contact the Addressing Office at (302) 855-1176.