County Debates Billboard Removal

SNOW HILL – Fears that language in the Route 50 and Route 113 corridor plans would obligate the county to pay for billboard removals prompted county elected officials to make changes to give property owners a choice between billboards and other signs.

Previous language in the plans made billboard removal mandatory during development or redevelopment, but county attorney Ed Hammond felt that this provision, under federal law, could bind the county to pay for billboard demolition and lost future earnings, and proposed the change.

The corridor plans were created to govern the aesthetics of the county’s two major roadways.

The Worcester County Commissioners approved changes in the two corridor plans to reflect the new requirements allowing property owners to decide between keeping the billboard, or a freestanding monument sign, upon making significant changes to the property.

“If they keep the billboard, they’re not permitted to have a freestanding sign for a commercial use,” said Sandy Coyman, director of Comprehensive Planning.

Property owners would not be required to make a choice if nothing on the property changes. They also have the option of adding a sign to a building, instead of a freestanding sign, and retaining the existing billboard.

“The person who buys the property can keep what is there,” said Hammond.

Only one billboard is allowed per parcel, and no new ones may be put up. The existing billboards can remain as long they stay intact but cannot be replaced if destroyed.

“If it’s blown down in a storm the zoning code does not permit a replacement. Once it’s destroyed, it’s gone,” Coyman said.

Billboard owners are allowed to do maintenance on the enormous advertising signs, and may even replace the supporting structure with a metal pylon, but they must go through the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) for a variance.

The public hearing held Tuesday before the commissioners voted revealed some confusion over language and what aspect of billboard regulation was actually being discussed, but few substantive comments.          

Land use attorney Mark Cropper wondered just what constitutes redevelopment.

“At what point does this apply?” he asked.

Cropper gave as an example the sale of an auto body shop, then turned into a plant store, with an added wing, and in addition the owner wants to redo an existing freestanding sign and retain its billboard. Cropper wondered could the owner keep both?

Hammond said this example probably would be considered a redevelopment. The owner would have to choose between the monument sign and the billboard.

Concerns also arose over related matters not covered by the corridor plan language, such as what happens if a billboard is knocked down in a hurricane.

“Billboards blowing down are a separate issue,” Hammond said, contained in another section of code entirely.

Director of Development Review and Permitting Ed Tudor attempted to simplify the issue.

“I’m going to try to clarify. I hate to add another voice to the whole thing,” he said. The code already addresses blown down billboards, said Tudor, and there is no change there. Adding billboards is also addressed already.

“You can’t have new ones,” Tudor said.

If a property owner wants to take down and rebuild a freestanding, or monument, sign and rebuild it, the owner would need permission from the BZA to reconstruct a nonconforming structure, he said.

“You’re actually making the plan consistent with the law,” said Tudor. “The change you’re making in the plan doesn’t make it worse for anybody.”