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Sign overhaul underway in Sussex

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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Working group prepares report for county council

Halfway into a six-month off-premises signs moratorium in Sussex County, a committee is finishing up its recommendations for sign-regulation reform.

County council enacted the moratorium in September to give the committee of county staff, attorneys, sign company owners and residents time to provide input on the county's sign ordinance including off-premises signs, which are primarily billboards. Many of the county's sign regulations date back three decades with few changes over the years.

The group will present its report to county council in early 2016.

"We need one set of regulations that mirrors the Big 4," said Lynn Rogers, retired county councilman and owner of Rogers Sign Co. in Milton.

The Big 4 he is referring to are routes 1, 9, 13 and 113 where the Delaware Department of Transportation regulates and permits signs. County and state regulations do not always match, which causes confusion.

Few billboard applications denied

Under the current system, billboards are permitted only in commercial zones and only with a special-use exception approved by the county board of adjustment.

In a letter to county council, the five members of the board said regulations are vague and do not provide clear-cut standards to restrict or deny applications. Most applications also require variances beyond the county's height and size regulations.

Board member Norman "Bud" Rickard said decisions are based on five standards. Among the standards, an applicant must prove there is a hardship requiring a variance, and the board must decide whether the application is detrimental to the surrounding area.

"They plead their case, but if we stuck to the five rules, we'd be in court every day with appeals," Rickard said.

Very few billboard applications are denied; there are more than 150 billboards along the Route 1 corridor between Nassau and the entrance to Rehoboth Beach - not including hundreds of additional on-premises signs.

Most billboard applications include requests for variances from county regulations. Included on the board's Monday, Jan. 4 agenda is an application for two billboards in Ocean View filed by Gerald Hocker Trustee and Emily Hocker Trustee with variances from maximum height, maximum square footage, side-yard setback and distance from residential dwellings, which is nearly every variance possible.

The applications were filed before the county enacted the moratorium on billboards.

Variances are created when an applicant wants to make sure their billboard is higher than anything else around them, said Janelle Cornwell, the county's planning and zoning manager.

"I don't like variances," said Councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford. "It should be a black-and-white policy. We need to take the emotion out of it. If you don't meet the standards, you don't get the billboard."

Arlett said he sees billboards next to houses and in front yards in parts of his district in eastern Sussex County.

He said with updated regulations, variances could at the very least be minimized.

Assistant county attorney and committee Chairman James Sharp said there comes a point where signs are too high. He said the comfort zone should be from 25 to 45 feet high. The average billboard height in the county is 35 feet, even though the maximum height in the code is 25 feet.

"There needs to be a legitimate hardship to get a variance," said group member Ben Phillips, owner of Phillips Signs in Sea-ford. "Right now under the rules, you ask for what you want, and you might get it."

Issues with electronic signs

The group has also discussed issues with the growing demand for electronic signs. Excessive brightness at night and motion on signs are among complaints received from residents.

Members of the group agreed that enforcement of county regulations dealing with electronic signs was an issue. The county has updated regulations dealing with luminance, dimming and motion. Member Dennis Forney of Lewes said some violations persist for months with no enforcement.

"The county does not have the staff for enforcement. This is tough to do," Rickard said.

Assistant county attorney Vince Robertson added that the increasing number of electronic signs makes it harder for county staff to provide enforcement. The area along Route 1 from Nassau to Dewey Beach is a problem area, he said.

The solution could be a staff person assigned strictly to sign enforcement, said Lawrence Lank, director of county planning and zoning.

Sharp said a permitting process for electronic signs could help keep better track of where signs are. Currently, special permits for electronic signs are not required.

Even with the best intentions, every conceivable situation cannot be regulated, Phillips said.

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Original Publication Date: January 1, 2016

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