OCEAN CITY — Dozens of non-conforming signs along Baltimore Avenue got a stay of execution of sorts last week when a divided Mayor and Council voted to extend a sunset provision set to expire next month for another six years.
An inventory of the signs advertising all manner of businesses along Baltimore Avenue revealed as many as 60 did not conform to code changes put in place in 2004 when the upper downtown overlay district was created. Some are too tall or too wide, while others are placed in the city’s right-of-way along Baltimore Avenue. Others are situated in such a way as to obstruct sight lines for motorists along the roadway.
When the ordinance was changed in 2004, property owners of the non-conforming signs along Baltimore Avenue were given 12 years to bring them into compliance. That “sunset” provision is set to expire on June 5, leaving the Mayor and Council last week with a decision to extend the sunset provision or take almost immediate steps to bring the signs into compliance. After a lengthy debate, the council voted 4-2 to extend the deadline for bringing the signs in from 3rd Street to 17th Street for another six years to coincide with an established similar deadline for non-conforming signs in the downtown area.
This issue is complicated. On one hand, the right-of-way on the state-owned Baltimore Avenue is not clearly established and the property lines in many cases are blurred and extend well into the originally platted roadway. In other cases, the existing signs are just a couple of feet too tall or too wide and fall just out of the specifications defined in the ordinance.
Complicating the issue further is the timeline for bringing the non-conforming signs into compliance. While many of the property owners have known for a decade their signs are not in compliance, town officials are just now pursuing enforcement with the deadline to comply less than a month away. Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville told the Mayor and Council his department was looking for some guidance on how to proceed with the deadline quickly approaching.
“We might have property owners who aren’t aware of the expiration date,” he said. “We could give them six months to bring them into compliance or we could extend that even further. We’re just looking for some direction from the council. Basically, by June 5 everybody needs to be in conformity or get a new agreement with the Mayor and Council.”
Many of the non-conforming signs advertise historic businesses along the old hotel row along Baltimore Avenue and have been in place for decades. Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith questioned if the fate of some of those signs could be considered in piecemeal fashion.
“There are a number of signs that people identify with the character of downtown that might be a foot too high or a foot too wide,” he said. “We might consider allowing non-conformity to continue by the Mayor and Council and the OCDC on case-by-case basis.”
The largest issue is the existence of the non-conforming signs in the right-of-way on Baltimore Ave. City Solicitor Guy Ayres outlined the history of the right-of-way designation along Baltimore Avenue.
“Years ago, there was a consideration of widening Baltimore Avenue,” he said. “The State Highway attorney was concerned some properties would have to be condemned. The issue is, the plats for the Sinepuxent Beach Company basically run from 33rd Street to the Inlet. Baltimore Avenue is platted much wider than it is now. When Ocean City conveyed Baltimore Avenue to the state, the rights were conveyed from the existing curb to curb. It will probably end up in court unless all property owners on Baltimore Avenue agree to give up their rights.”
In terms of specifications for the signs in the code, Councilman Wayne Hartman questioned why they were allowed in the first place.
“How did some signs get too tall or too wide?” he said. “I’d like to see the history on this. Here we are considering something set to expire in less than a month and it seems like there are a lot of issues to consider.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca questioned the recommendation to extend the deadline for another six years.
“I think there are two or three issues here, some short term and some long term,” he said. “It was 10 years ago and now we’re talking about extending it another six years. It’s like we keep kicking this can down the road.”
DeLuca attempted to clarify the otherwise murky situation.
“I think it’s a phased-in situation,” he said. “Those that are safety issues need to go away. Those without permits need to go away. For the others, maybe extend them 36 months, but not six to eight more years.”
Smith said the downtown zoning district was set to have its deadline for non-conforming signs expire in six years in November 2022. He said it might be appropriate to extend the deadline for the upper downtown district to the same date and suggested a review of the entire Baltimore Avenue corridor in the meantime.
“Whenever we do a new profile for Baltimore Avenue, that might be the time to accomplish all of these things at once,” he said. “It might not be appropriate for this right now.”
When questioned why the issue was coming to the fore now with less than a month until the deadline, Smith explained it kind of snuck up on his extremely busy department.
“We didn’t put this on the back burner,” he said. “We just have a lot going on. Six months gets us beyond summer and gives them some time to work this out.”
In terms of signs viewed as public safety hazards because they impede sight lines along the roadway, Smith said he could not remember any cases where accidents occured.
“Some of them have been there for years and years,” he said. “I don’t know of any traffic incidents they’ve caused.”
After considerable debate, a motion was made to extend the sunset provision for the non-conforming signs another six years, which was approved 4-2, with Hartman and DeLuca opposed.
Hartman then made a more comprehensive motion that appeared to take in all of the issues discussed. The motion included removing all signs without permits, further studying the signs impeding sight lines and allowing those signs in corner visibility areas to be corrected within six months. All other non-conforming signs in the upper downtown district would have the deadline for compliance extended for six years in keeping with a similar deadline for the downtown area. That motion passed by a 6-0 vote.
Hartman cautioned the town’s decision on the non-conforming signs could end up having an adverse effect. He said business owners forced to move signs or remove them altogether would likely go with the more prolific electronic signs, complicating the issue even further.
“My concern is, once they get moved out of the right-of-way, we’re going to get more and more electronic signs,” he said. “I think we’ll see a proliferation of electronic signs all competing and we’ll end up with something worse. When these signs get replaced, you’re going to have electronic signs coming at you so fast you won’t have time to read them.”