Sussex County sign ordinance sees better compliance

GEORGETOWN — It’s a sign of the times in Sussex County, and one that Sussex Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, views as one of progress.

Following an update on sign ordinance enforcement and compliance this month, Mr. Cole said, “I think we are moving in the right direction. Billboards and signage kind of got out of hand and we lost track of it. Now maybe we can rein it in a little bit. People still can advertise. We’re not stopping it. We’re just making sure it is done properly.”

In mid-October 2016, county council unanimously approved an amended sign ordinance that lifted a 13-month moratorium that had stagnated the application process for new billboards in the county.

The sign ordinance overhaul governs such issues as animation, electronic message centers, separation distance between on-premise and off-premise signs, brightness, non-conformity and temporary real estate signage.

Since January of this year, Steve Hickman, planning and zoning’s sign ordinance enforcer — working second shift in darkness on some occasions — has inspected every billboard and every electronic message center for code compliance.

The inspection verdict: more than 52 complaints regarding signs have been received by the planning and zoning office.

Most complaints center on billboards regarding permitted use and electronic message centers, also known as EMCs. The primary issue with those devices is brightness, according to Sussex County Planning and Zoning Director Janelle Cornwell.

The majority of the 39 violation letters issued by the planning and zoning office have been closed or rectified. Only six remained outstanding as of the Dec. 12 presentation to county council.

Ms. Cornwell said the county performs on-site visits with sign companies and businesses before and after permits are issued. In addition, applicants no longer have to physically come into the planning and zoning office to obtain a permit.

“I think we’ve improved customer service in the permitting process. Typically, you’d always have to come in and bring your paperwork into the office,” said Ms. Cornwell. “Steve has revamped the sign permit application. He has also made it easier for applicants that they can just email all the paperwork to Steve. He will review it. If everything is good, he’ll put it into the system. Then he’ll let them know how much the permit is going the cost. Once they send the check and it comes into the office, we will mail the permit back.”

County council’s sign ordinance update in 2016 culminated more than a year process punctuated by a series of meetings of a working group, several ordinance proposals and alternative versions, several public hearings before county council and the planning and zoning commission and sometimes contentious discussion.

These days, Mr. Hickman is armed with new equipment, including an app and a tool that goes onto his phone, which enables him to measure sign square footage and height.

There’s also a modern light meter for determining if an electronic message center’s LED’s exceed the allotted brightness.

While the county has fees if an issue goes to court, violations have not gone that far.

“There is still a lot of work to be done, but we’re getting there,” said Mr. Hickman.

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