Some Dare County business owners are very unhappy that Dare County has finally started enforcing its long-standing sign ordinance.
“Doing this the year after Hurricane Irene and in the middle of the season is just plain dumb,” said one business owner.
County Planning Director Donna Creef sent a letter to business owners in February to remind them – before the season started – about the sign regulations in unincorporated Dare County.
The letter did little to motivate owners to remove illegal signs, such as sandwich boards and other temporary signs, or comply with the limitations on flags and pennants.
Creef followed up in early June with a letter to those businesses that still had illegal temporary signs and flags, which is where the planning department started with enforcing the ordinance.
Letters went to 55 businesses in unincorporated Dare with illegal sandwich boards and other temporary signs, Creef said.
Creef did a sign inventory on July 24 and 25. Only 12 businesses complied with the first notice, and on July 27, Creef sent letters to 45 business owners who still were not in compliance. A few were added that were not offenders in June -- new illegal signs are going up faster than the planners can keep track of them.
In the letter, Creef promised that there would be a follow-up inventory soon, and that those owners who do not comply will be subject to civil penalties of $50 a day for the first 15 days after a written notice is issued, $100 a day from day 16 throught 30, and then $500 a day after that.
Also, in July, the planning department sent letters to 22 businesses that were in violation of the limitation on flags.
Some business owners have complied after the July 27 letter, but sandwich boards and other violations, such as portable magnetic boards, are still in front of many businesses on the island.
Many of these business owners say that the temporary signs are what brings in the business. And some say they will not remove them.
They say that the ordinance is bad for business, especially after many island businesses suffered significant economic losses after Hurricane Irene.
And some say they did not get the February and/or June letters and that they resent being hassled in the middle of the busy tourist season.
In her February letter, Creef noted the reason for the sign ordinance.
“The Dare County Sign Ordinance is designed to promote the efficient transfer of information with signage that enhances the appearance and economic value of our landscape in a manner that does not create traffic hazards or obstruct emergency vehicles,” she said.
Many, if not most, of the illegal temporary signs are in the Highway 12 right-of-way, which is a both a traffic and public safety issue. But even those signs that are moved out of the right-of-way and onto the business property are illegal.
And some would argue that the clutter of signs and flags is unattractive along what has been named a National Scenic Byway and that there is so much clutter that drivers passing by can’t really focus on all the signs.
The Outer Banks Scenic Byway, which includes Highway 12 from Whalebone Junction to Down East Carteret County, is a good reason to change how business owners attract folks to their shops and restaurants, says Mary Helen Goodloe-Murphy of Rodanthe who is chairman of the Outer Banks and Dare County committees.
The pathways and sidewalks being planned to all of the Hatteras villages will put much more emphasis, she thinks, on pedestrian and bike traffic.
But before you can understand the current outrage about enforcing the sign ordinance, a short history lesson is in order.
THE SIGN ORDINACE
Dare County has had a sign ordinance on the books since 1975. It was seldom enforced.
In 2001, the Board of Commissioners decided to put an emphasis on “beautification” on Hatteras Island and other unincorporated areas. In other words, they set out to enforce the sign ordinance on the books.
Letters went to 90 businesses out of compliance and there was a small firestorm that ensued, mostly from businesses that were not on Highway 12 and, therefore, had illegal “off-premises” signs directing people to their shops.
After a public hearing, the ordinance was tweaked a bit, mostly to allow off-premises signs – but only for business not on the highway.
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.
In 2003, the county set out to begin enforcing the ordinance.
However, Hurricane Isabel in September of 2003 mostly ended that effort as the island economy limped along in the aftermath of that storm.
And other than permitting new signs and responding to complaints about the specific businesses, there has been little or no enforcement since then.
The economy weakened and the 2008 consent decree and ensuing beach closures hurt the Hatteras economy. No one had the political will to enforce the sign regulations.
Last winter, Bobby Outten went to the Board of Commissioners about the sign ordinance and other laws on the books.
“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, had 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 in an interview this week. And he says that is what he told the board.
The commissioners said they wanted to enforce the sign ordinance, and thus the February letter from Creef to business owners.
Creef said the planning department decided to focus at first on the temporary signs and flags, but both she and Outten said that enforcement of the other regulations, such as the prohibition on off-site signs, is coming.
She added that the department has also had trouble getting addresses for businesses, such as when the landowner doesn’t own the business and the letters may have gone to them.
At least up until the current push for enforcement, the county has had few requests to change the ordinance, Outten said.
For the most part, businesses owners just ignored the regulations, and some have continued to ignore them, even after they received numerous letters.
If business owners disagree with the ordinance, both Outten and Creef said, they should bring their grievances to the county, preferably with some constructive suggestions for changes.
Contact information, including e-mail addresses and phone numbers, for the county commissioners, county manager, and planning director are all available on the Dare County website, http://www.darenc.com.
The Outer Banks National Scenic Byway was designated, of course, to showcase the natural beauty of the area through the seashore and into Down East.
But it also brings opportunities from grants and matching monies for pathways, sidewalks, signage, and other pluses for the area.
The Outer Banks Scenic Byway Committee and the Dare County committee have been especially aggressive in getting grants for pathways and sidewalk projects.
The first one was a pathway along the Buxton Back Road for pedestrians and bikes, which has been completed.
Others are coming, says Goodloe-Murphy.
First up are pathways through the tri-villages of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo and through Avon, which are expected to be completed by May 24.
Each village will have four miles of a 5-foot wide concrete pathway on the west side of Highway 12. In the tri-villages it will run from the Community Building in Rodanthe to the Salvo Day Use Area, south of the villages. In Avon, it will run from the first soundside turnout north of the village to the first soundside turnout on the south.
The $2.45 million project is being built with a $1.95 million grant from the National Scenic Byways Program, $400,000 from the Dare County Tourism Board, and $90,000 from individuals and businesses on the island.
The next will be a 5-foot pathway on the west side of Highway 12 through Buxton and Frisco. It will run from the secondary school in Buxton where the Back Road pathway ends to the Frisco Shopping Center near the Park Service campground and Billy Mitchell airport.
The scenic byways committee is seeking a $1.3 million grant from the National Scenic Byways Program that did not come through this year but could in the future and matching money that will come from the Tourism Board.
Through the N.C. Department of Transportation, the scenic byway committee is seeking to fund a project for sidewalks on both sides of the highway in Buxton and Hatteras village. In Buxton, the sidewalks will run from the north end of Buxton to the secondary school, where they will connect with the pathway. In Hatteras, the sidewalks will run from the bridge over Slash Creek on the east end of the heart of the village to the second Slash Creek bridge on the village’s west end.
The committee is seeking to have funds for that project included in the state’s Transportation Improvement Program. The Buxton and Hatteras sidewalk project will also have to include repairs in DOT’s stormwater system in the villages.
All of these, Goodloe-Murphy says, will give us a safe place to walk and bike year-round, not just for visitors but for residents.
Obviously, signs in the highway right-of-way will have to be removed for the pathways and sidewalks.
However, Goodloe-Murphy also says owners should start thinking of new ways to bring pedestrians and bikers into their businesses. She mentions such additions as benches, bike racks, tables with umbrellas and chairs, or a water fountain to get folks to notice a business.
We will no longer, she says, be dependent on people just driving from business to business and businesses owners will have to approach “street appeal” in other ways.
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