It’s a common sight along area roads: business vehicles with prominent logos and other advertising, placed in just the perfect spot to turn them into mobile billboards, intentionally or not. And it’s something that has some local officials concerned — to the point of considering banning the practice.
In Fenwick Island this week, a potential ban on advertising on commercial vehicles was on the town council agenda, as issues of vehicle size, parking location, aesthetics and intent all figured into the discussion.
Councilman Bill Weistling Jr. brought the issue back to the council after consideration in the town’s Charter & Ordinance and Parking committees, noting that the intent of a possible new ordinance was to address vehicles being used solely as advertising, without prohibiting the use or presence of other vehicles.
The Charter & Ordinance Committee had supported the idea of a ban on such vehicles, he said, but had concerns they wanted addressed by the town’s police, such as how vehicles in violation of an ordinance would be identified.
“There are one or two that are obvious,” he said, “but we want to be careful.” He said one idea had been to ban advertising using larger trucks or large trailers, rather than with cars or smaller vans.
Police Chief William Boyden said this kind of ordinance can prove hard to enforce.
“Once they know there’s an ordinance, they will start moving the vehicle around,” he said of using a lack of movement to identify vehicles used solely for advertising. “We don’t want an ordinance against one or two businesses,” he emphasized.
Boyden said that, as with many town ordinances, education would likely be the focus for police.
“We would go to businesses that have vehicles that could be used as billboards and educate them,” he explained, noting that such ordinances do exist elsewhere in the country and seem to work in some places. “But I’m not sure how it would work here.”
Boyden said Delaware law-enforcement agencies have generally been limited to enforcing such laws on private property by using legal prohibitions on “abandoned” vehicles, which a truck parked long-term in one spot could be considered — at least until it was moved.
But using an ordinance to address a specific issue, he said, had in years past often been a matter of educating violators.
“We didn’t need to write tickets. We were able to go out and talk to people and explain. In the time I’ve been here, 98 percent of the time, the problem has gone away.”
Mayor Audrey Serio emphasized that the potential ordinance wasn’t intended to target any specific business but would address a situation in which, at present, “Anybody could decide to park it on their own property.”
Enforcement a concern
Boyden said problems often erupt when one owner does something “and it kind of gets away,” as more and more follow the example. A-frame or sandwich-board signs were one such case, he noted, where enforcing a ban hasn’t required issuing citations to violators.
“They know the building inspector is not here” on weekends, he offered. “But we go to them on Monday morning and explain it to them, and most of them disappear.”
Councilwoman Diane Tingle said she was concerned that when the Town might try to enforce a ban, they would be accused of improperly targeting a legitimate use.
“If we have a business with a truck parked out front, and they claim they use it two or three times a year to deliver something,” she offered as an example. “I don’t want us to have a lawsuit by somebody getting a ticket when they say they’re using it and we say it’s advertising. Anybody who has a sign is advertising,” she added, noting that some vehicles she knows are used do sit parked adjacent to the roadway over the weekend.
Boyden said he’d like to get input from the town solicitor, as well as the Delaware Department of Justice, court officials and other municipalities who may have adopted a similar ordinance.
Weistling said the town solicitor had told him that Bethany Beach was the only other local town that dealt with the issue in its code. “They said you can’t advertise, but they didn’t get into specifics,” he noted, adding that the Fenwick town solicitor had, years ago, encouraged the council not to pursue such an ordinance.
Boyden said there were also other circumstances in which the Town would have to question whether enforcement was appropriate, such as a business with a truck that has a sign on the side whose owner might go on vacation for months or be in the hospital for a long period.
“We don’t want to target them,” he said, adding that any past circumstances of concerns about advertising on vehicles had been addressed through the abandoned vehicle prohibition.
Serio questioned whether any complaints about the problem might be coming from other businesses that weren’t able to do the same thing. “What if it were a size regulation, like our ordinance on the size of other signs?”
Boyden said something like that might be much easier to pass and enforce.
“What are you going to do about vehicle wraps?” Councilman Todd Smallwood put forward.
“Are we going to stop people coming down the road?” Serio asked with a note of intentional absurdity.
Weistling suggested an ordinance might be based on the size of the vehicles.
“We have the aesthetic issue of vehicles that don’t move being used to advertise along highways,” he emphasized.
And Serio questioned using the abandoned vehicle ordinance to deal with the problem.
“If they have to be moved, they’ll move them. Every day, somebody will move them.”
Other types of ordinances considered
Council members weren’t ready this week to ask that an ordinance be drafted, but their consensus on June 27 was that wanted to have the issue explored some more, and that they don’t like the way the vehicle-based billboards look in the town. They also said they’d like to get feedback from legal experts before hammering out a draft ordinance in committee.
Tingle suggested the council also consider another way to address the specific problem.
“Why not have an ordinance that says you can’t set anything on an empty lot that advertises?” she asked, raising some concern from other council members about the impact that might have on real estate signs on unimproved properties.
Weistling also raised concerns about the practicality of using a limit on the number of signs to apply to vehicles with logos or other advertising, noting that a number of businesses that use trucks have multiple vehicles that might be kept in a parking lot at one time.
“I have mixed feelings,” Serio said. “We have great intentions, but we’ve been talking about this a long time. If we could find something to latch onto, then it would make sense,” she said of finding an angle upon which to focus such an ordinance. “I would suggest that if someone knows something we can latch onto, let Bill know,” she added of Weistling.
Business owner says issue needs to be addressed
One of the town’s business owners offered his input on the issue at the June 27 council meeting.
“I think this is a serious issue that can escalate into something much bigger,” said Tim Collins, a town resident and owner of Southern Exposure. “I’ve seen something in the last year or two that I’m becoming more and more concerned about: these vehicles out next to the highway, the size of them, the advertising.
“I know the importance of trying to get word out there that you’re in business, but this is a situation where somebody’s pointing to someone and saying, ‘They’re doing it — why can’t I do it?’ It puts the Town in a difficult situation, where there’s a question of who is legitimate with these vehicles.
“It’s not just a question of who is legitimate,” he added. “If we can establish as a community businesses that actually need a truck, then I think the solution is finding a place for that vehicle to be parked somewhere other than right on the highway. But if they’re going to be parked on commercial property, or any property, we should go to the shopping center or get something on the books where that vehicle has to be parked at the end of the center or on the side or at the back.
“We’ve got to get them out of the commercial lots. It’s becoming an eyesore, and it’s concerning to me as a business owner and as a resident,” Collins added. “You can see the proliferation. I’ve seen a few things out there that are just ridiculous. If a vehicle is needed legitimately by a business, we should make an effort to get it parked where it’s not on the highway.”
Collins noted that he feels the Town has been receptive to working with the business community, including a recent Board of Adjustment case that enabled a shopping center to modify its sign to get one of its tenant businesses on the sign.
“Having them on the highway is a problem, and I’m saying that as a business owner,” he added. “But if they have to have it, part of the approach should be let them have it — but not in the parking lots by the highway.”
“The problem is finding a way that is enforceable and it works,” said Serio.