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For now, Sussex council finishes debate on signs

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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County seeks to halt sins of past especially along Route 1 area

Sussex County Council finally finished its debate on updated sign regulations during a special July 11 meeting. Now it's in the hands of county attorneys to write a draft ordinance to be introduced at a future council meeting.

During the ongoing discussion, county council has had in place a billboard moratorium since September 2015 that has been extended twice. It's set to expire Monday, Aug. 15.

Once an ordinance is introduced, public hearings before the planning and zoning commission and county council will be scheduled. After getting the public's input, council will have final say; it's possible more changes could be made before a final vote is taken.

Council has reached consensus on the details required to rewrite the county's sign regulations for off-premises signs - primarily billboards - and digital signs. Throughout the debate, council members said they wanted to prevent the proliferation of signs on the Route 1 corridor in the Cape Region from spreading to other areas of the county.

Under the proposed regulations, the separation distance between billboards would be doubled, billboard variances would be limited and stricter billboard setbacks would be established.

In addition, digital billboards would be permitted on 2-and 4-lane roads.

If the proposed regulations are passed, many current billboards - especially along the Route 1 corridor - would be nonconforming. In addition, businesses with digital signs would face stricter regulations including the prohibition of videos and live streaming.

Cole vs. Arlett on digital signs

Some key issues pitted council members against one another in an effort to reach a compromise.

Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, pushed hard to ban digital billboards on 2-lane roads, to allow only one digital sign per commercial parcel and to prohibit animation on digital on-premises signs. Even with support from Councilwom-an Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, he lost on all three issues. Council members Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, and Mike Vincent, R-Seaford, opposed all three measures.

Cole said the county should have strict rules in place to regulate electronic message centers, also known as digital signs, leading to a debate with Arlett on the merits of digital signs.

"There is no evidence that these signs are a distraction except your opinion," Arlett said. "In fact, the evidence presented to us shows they are not a distraction."

"Believe me, they are distracting and unsightly," Cole responded. "It depends on what you want your county to look like."

"We need to find a balance," Arlett said.

"We are so far out of balance it's going to be hard to find balance," Cole said.

"It's still a free market," Arlett said. "Business owners can make educated decisions where to invest their money. They will not put digital billboards on rural 2-lane roads; it will not happen."

Currently, the only two digital billboards in the county are on two-lane Route 26 near Ocean View. Arlett said the area where the signs are located is far from rural.

Cole said it's time for council to look to the future and leave a legacy. "We've tried to make changes. It's a joke what's on paper today," he said. "We have to make hard decisions somewhere down the line."

In the end, council decided that digital billboards should be allowed on 2-lane roads with a separation distance of at least 1,200 feet between them.

Cole said he was confused why the separation distance would be 2,500 feet on 4-lane roads and half that distance on 2-lane roads. "It's not logical," he said.

Council also decided that digital on-premises signs should be permitted with limited animation to include flipping, fading and window-shading but not flashing, scrolling or video. Images must also be displayed at least 10 seconds with a one-second change time.

Council reached consensus that a digital billboard and a digital on-premises sign should be allowed on the same commercial parcel. On-premises signs can be up to 200 square feet and billboards can be from 300 to 600 square feet depending on how many lanes the road has.

Council spent a lot of time debating how far apart the signs should be.

"We have nothing today," Arlett said. "Any distance is better than what we have today."

"Today is not acceptable," Cole responded. "Zero is not a good standard."

At one point, Cole said his head was ready to explode. "It's simple to have just one digital sign per parcel; it's not that restrictive," he said. "Let the business owner make the decision, and it's easy to enforce."

Cole said if on-premises digital signs were allowed with digital billboards, they should be restricted to no more than 50 percent of the total sign face.

After much discussion, council agreed to allow two digital signs with the following separation distances: an on-premises sign of 100 square feet or less should be at least 100 feet from a digital billboard on the same parcel. There is an increase of 1 foot of separation distance for every additional square foot of the digital portion of the sign.

The proposed ordinance contains a provision for 50 feet of separation between static billboards and static on-premises signs on the same commercial parcel.

Council agreed that any changes to existing nonconforming billboards should be allowed only if the changes bring the billboard closer to conforming with existing regulations. The proposed ordinance does not allow for variances for new billboards; it does allow variances for existing billboards for setback and separation distance regulations, but not for height or billboard size.

"We have to be reasonable," Cole said. "Some variances should be allowed, but they have to show a true hardship. If they make changes, the billboard has to come into conformity."

"Our goal is simple that the billboard be brought back into conformity," Arlett added.

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Original Publication Date: July 15, 2016

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