August 30, 2012


Dare County continues push against illegal signs at businesses

Some Hatteras Island business owners received another letter from the Dare County Planning Department this week, threatening them with legal action if their illegal signs are not removed by Sept.10.

And some others were notified of newly placed signs that do not comply with the county’s sign ordinance.

County Planning Director Donna Creef said this week that she sent follow-up letters to 30 businesses about signs that out are of compliance. Nine businesses with new signs got a warning letter.

The letters went to businesses in unincorporated Dare County, mostly on Hatteras Island.

The letters warn businesses that if they have not removed the signs by Sept. 10, the information will be forwarded to the county attorney for legal action.

The county’s new emphasis on enforcing a long-standing ordinance is being greeted by anger or apparently just outright defiance by some businesses.

Owners seem surprised about the recent push for enforcement, disagree with the ordinance, and believe it will hurt them after they have already suffered an economic wallop by Hurricane Irene last August.

Dare County has had a sign ordinance on the books since 1975. It was revamped in 2003, but has seldom been enforced for a variety of reasons including the economic pressures on the island from the recession, storms, and the National Park Service’s large resource closures that have blocked some off-road vehicle access to popular beaches during the spring and summer nesting season.

The highlights of that ordinance:

  • Businesses are allowed only one sign on the property.
  • Such things as size, placement, and lighting are regulated.
  • Off-premises signs are prohibited.  This includes all signs directing travelers to a business that is so many miles ahead or has been passed by.
  • Businesses off Highway 12 are allowed one sign on the highway.
  • Flags and pennants or balloons or kites at businesses are prohibited or limited to a certain number, depending on highway frontage.
  • Sandwich boards, or A-frame signs, magnetic boards, and other temporary signs are prohibited.
  • Off-premises directional real estate signs along the highway are also prohibited.
  • Real estate signs can be placed only on properties for sale with certain restrictions.
  • Certain exceptions are allowed for campaign signs and temporary signs promoting non-business or non-profit events.

Last winter, Bobby Outten went to the Board of Commissioners about the sign ordinance.

“We should enforce all of our ordinances, and if the ordinances aren’t what we want, we should change them,” he said.

The county, he said, has not been “as diligent as it should have been in enforcing” the sign ordinance.

“My view is that if we have an ordinance, we should enforce it,” Outten said.  And he says that is what he told the board.

The commissioners said they wanted to enforce the sign ordinance, and last February, Creef started sending letters to business owners, reminding them about the regulations as they prepared for the season. That was followed by a June letter to 55 businesses that were out of compliance.

The enforcement this year has focused on temporary, portable signs, such as sandwich boards and boards with magnetic letters, and on flags, because, Creef said, these are the biggest offenders.

After an inventory of business signs at the end of July, another letter went to 45 businesses that were still out of compliance, outlining the legal actions that can be pursued -- fines that compound quickly over time from $50 a day up to $500 a day.

Another three letters this week went to Hatteras businesses with illegal off-premises signs.

At least one owner who got a letter in July said he did not get the first two.

The most recent inventory was conducted last week on Aug. 22 and 23, and another letter sent to offenders.

“We’re chipping away at it,” said Creef, who also noted that her phone “has been ringing off the hook” with more complaints.

She said that one owner she sent a letter to did comment that “it looked a lot nicer” now that some of the temporary signs have started coming down.

Reactions of some business owners have been along the lines of what Tony McGowan, owner of the Beacon Shops, said this week.

“I think it’s an absolute tragedy,” he said, “that Dare County finds it necessary to threaten its business people with legal action for signs they have been using for years – in my case, for 10 years.”

McGowan is particularly unhappy that the enforcement action is coming the year after Hurricane Irene caused large losses for many island businesses.

“Now we have to take our signs down and basically become invisible,” he said, adding the county is being “obstructionist” on this issue.

Each business is allowed one free-standing sign of certain dimensions along the highway, but not such portable signs as sandwich boards, which are very popular and which business owners say really work.

“It’s a very effective way to advertise, and it’s been done down here for years,” said Wes Lassiter of the Red Drum Pottery in Frisco, who got some of the earlier letters but did not get one this week.

“Why can’t there be some middle road?” he asked, and cited Nags Head’s policy, which Creef said allows portable signs but only during the day when the business is open.  They must be removed at night, she said.

“We’re in a unique position down here,” Lassiter added.  “We have only a short time to make money and that can be cut shorter by a hurricane.”

Creef and Outten have both said that if business owners have grievances with the ordinance and ideas to fix it, they need to take them to the Board of Commissioners.


FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information go to:
Dare County sign ordinance at http://www.darenc.com/planning/Chapter158.pdf
An editor’s blog from earlier this month about the current crackdown on the sign ordinance:http://islandfreepress.org/PivotBlog/?e=205#body-anchor

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