Dare County has had a zoning ordinance governing signs at commercial establishments since 1975.
That was back when there were many fewer businesses on Hatteras Island than there are today and almost all of them were located along Highway 12.
As time passed, businesses proliferated and began to open on the roads off the highway. Signs also multiplied ? with businesses that broke the rules with more than one sign at a business, off-premises signs, and such attention getting devices as sandwich boards, magnetic signs, flags, and pennants.
Along with this explosive growth in businesses came an explosion in the clutter along the island?s only main road, Highway 12.
During those years, the sign ordinance was seldom enforced or spottily enforced and, in fact, many businesses got permits for non-conforming signs that violated the regulations.
Many people, including county officials, felt the highway was becoming cluttered and junky, not what visitors wanted to see when they come to the pristine and naturally beautiful seashore.
In 2001, the county Planning Department, with the backing of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, began a ?beautification? campaign on Hatteras and began an effort to start enforcing the sign regulations already in place.
After doing an ?inventory? of signs, the department sent notices to more than 90 businesses that were not in compliance.
Many businesses owners were unhappy, and a public outcry of sorts followed. Not all businesses with non-conforming signs were notified. Furthermore, owners of businesses off the highway, such as the Old Gray House on Light Plant Road in Buxton, felt that not being able to have a sign on the highway directing people to their businesses would put them out of business.
In early 2002, after a public hearing, the commissioners agreed to back off enforcement for a time to re-examine the issues that had been raised, but not to give up on eventual enforcement of the rules.
The Planning Department tweaked the sign regulations, most notably to allow businesses off Highway 12 one off-premises sign.
In March, 2003 after another public hearing, the Board of Commissioners passed a revised sign ordinance and vowed to begin enforcing it.
Some highlights of the 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 limited.
–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.
Non-conforming signs had to be brought into compliance within a certain time frame. The shortest was 60 days for portable signs such as sandwich boards and the longest five years for off-premises freestanding signs.
By the time the new ordinance was passed in 2003, most of those who were unhappy about sign enforcement were placated.
And it seemed for a while that the county Planning Department was indeed enforcing the sign ordinance.
That enforcement began to dwindle, however, and rather quickly. First, there was Hurricane Isabel in Sept, 2003, which turned the county?s attention to rebuilding the damage from the storm.
Then, the Park Service began enforcing more stringent rules for resource closures that culminated in the summer of 2008 went the federal court agreed to the consent decree under which seashore beaches are now managed. The result has been much larger closures for ORVs and pedestrians that, in turn, have affected the island?s economy.
And about the same time as the consent decree arrived, so did a major recession and soaring gas prices.
The Planning Department basically issued permits for new signs and responded to complaints from the public about non-conforming signs, but that was about the extent of the enforcement.
During those years, the illegal signs, pennants, flags, and sandwich boards have continued to increase each and every year.
The result has been unprecedented unsightly clutter along a highway through beautiful natural areas and towns which the residents have said they want to promote a ?coastal village atmosphere.?
My favorite non-conforming signs are a series that point travelers to the Red Drum Pottery in Frisco ? first so many miles ahead and then so many miles back. All have been there since before 2003. They have not been removed nor has the business apparently been cited for violations. In fact, the business has moved twice since 2003 and both times, the signs were merely changed.
Enough should be enough. The Planning Department should begin enforcing the laws that are on the books ? in fairness to the many businesses that do comply and to restore the coastal village atmosphere and natural beauty of our seashore.
Today, some stretches through the villages look more like carnivals than a national seashore.
The restrictions on beach access are apparently not changing anytime soon and we are going to have to live with them as best we can ? at least for now. And the economy shows signs of improving.
Last year Highway 12 from Whalebone Junction to Down East Carteret County was named a national Scenic Byway.
It?s time to start making it look more like one.
Donna Creef, who took over as director of the Planning Department last year from Ray Sturza, said in response to an e-mailed question on sign enforcement that the department has been focused on finishing the update of the county?s Land Use Plan, which was scheduled to be certified by the Coastal Resources Commission this week.
?After that I hope to get most focus back on the normal, day-to-day business of the Planning Department,? she said.
Let us know what you think about whether Dare County should start enforcing its sign regulation.
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And for more information, click here to read the Dare County sign ordinance.