Council Agrees To Extend Non-Conforming Signs

OCEAN CITY — Satisfied the bill covers all of the major thoroughfares in the resort, Ocean City officials this week passed an ordinance extending a sunset provision for non-conforming business signs for another six years while addressing the issue of certain signs that block sight lines for motorists.

In May, dozens of non-conforming signs along Baltimore Avenue got a stay of execution of sorts when the Mayor and Council approved an ordinance extending a sunset provision set to expire for another six months. An inventory of signs advertising all manner of businesses along Baltimore Avenue revealed as many as 60 did not conform to the code changes put in place in 2004 when the upper downtown overlay district was created.

Out of that discussion came a larger debate about certain signs along Baltimore and Philadelphia avenues and even St. Louis Avenue to some degree that were found to be blocking sight lines for motorists and creating potential public safety issues. Town staff reviewed the signs along the corridors and determined there were as many as nine that could be considered obstructions for sight lines.

To that end, an amended ordinance was proposed to separate those signs from the six-year sunset extension and have them addressed sooner rather than later, perhaps in as few as six months. The amended ordinance failed to pass in June when the Mayor and Council differed on what signs were considered to be in the sight lines or obstructing views for motorists. When it came back for a second reading on Tuesday, the debate continued.

“My question is, under this ordinance will all three streets — Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia Avenue and St. Louis Avenue — be covered?” said Councilman Tony DeLuca. “I think if the signs are found to be obstructing views, they should be corrected within six months.”

Planning and Community Development Director Bill Neville said he and Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith had identified signs that could be considered obstructions and was comfortable they were covered under the ordinance.

“We’ve taken a closer look at the various sections of the code and I think it’s perfectly clear this would apply in all areas,” he said. “When you look at the section of the code that refers to intersections and the street right-of-way, the signs in question are not in the areas where somebody is looking to turn. They are back in the right-of-way, which is some distance from the intersection.”

The right-of-way issue on Baltimore Avenue is complicated. The right-of-way on the state-owned roadway is not clearly established and the property lines are blurred. As a result, many of the properties extend well into the originally-platted right-of-way, but those lines have long been forgotten or ignored. So, in some cases, signs are in the established right-of-way, but far removed from intersections where they may block views for motorists. Smith explained the staff was aware of the differences and was confident none of the signs were creating public safety hazards.

“Up until 1993, it was objective,” he said. “We had to make a judgment call. A lot of these signs have existed for 30 years or more and anything that could be deemed as a traffic hazard has been addressed. I have no record anywhere that these signs in question have created any safety issues.”

Councilman Wayne Hartman pointed out the perceived differences between the criteria for some areas.

“The way the ordinance is written, Baltimore Avenue is still six years out, but Philadelphia Avenue has specific signs in the line of sight or signs that cause obstructions that need to be addressed in the next six months,” he said. “I just think it needs to be consistent for all areas, but I also wouldn’t want to see somebody have to move a sign twice to accommodate this.”

Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out some of the signs in question are on one-way streets and, as a result, would not fall into the line of sight for motorists.

“In some cases, they’re not in the direction traffic should be coming because they are on one-way streets,” he said. “Does the ordinance as written require those signs to be moved? I think the ordinance is written for two-way streets with intersections. The one-way streets come under your discretion and I think you’ve done a good job with discretion in the past.”

Hartman pointed out there are other considerations that cause motorists to look both ways regardless.

“You’re talking about a line of sight on a one-way street, but I often find myself looking both ways because of all of the pedestrian, bicycle and skateboard traffic,” he said. “Right now, there are three signs on Baltimore Avenue that fall under this and if this passes, they might have to be moved twice.”

Satisfied the ordinance as written extends the sunset provision for non-conforming signs for another six years while addressing the immediate concerns about obstructing signs, the council approved the ordinance by a 7-0 vote.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.