'Blueberry wars' spark over signage

The berries are sweet, but the competition for customers has apparently turned sourer than all the lemons in a large meringue pie.

Frankford is the site of one battle in the county’s “blueberry wars,” with the competition between two Blueberry Lane farms reaching a peak this week in a hearing before the Sussex County Board of Adjustments, despite the fact that blueberry season was over weeks ago.

The request by Joseph Webb and David Size for additional wall and ground signs at their Blueberry Lane Farm seemed innocuous enough at the start, but the situation behind the case was soon revealed as something more complex.

Webb, presenting his case before the board members Sept. 19, noted that his and Size’s blueberry farm — known for its “U-pick” blueberry sales — was bordered on the east by another blueberry farm. There was often confusion between the two farms, Webb said, necessitating that he get additional signage to clarify for his potential customers where his farm was located.

According to neighboring “U-pick” farmer Ross Cropper of Lit et Cheval bed-and-breakfast and blueberry farm, Webb’s venture already had a more-than-ample number of signs — 17 of them, in fact.

Given that Webb’s request was for additional signage, that revelation elicited some chuckles from board members and those present during the hearing.

Cropper then passed around photographs of the 17 signs that he said run from Route 113 down Blueberry Lane and culminate in the large “U-Pick” lettering on the roof of Webb’s farm stand, which he said could “be seen from miles away.”

The competition for blueberry customers was “cutthroat,” Cropper acknowledged, noting that two of the 17 signs were even placed in Webb’s blueberry field, facing the Lit et Cheval fields — apparently geared to tempt Cropper’s customers into crossing the property line.

Cropper said his reading of codes for property with agricultural zoning in the county restricted a business to two signs only. Webb would definitely need a variance to allow for additional signs, and Cropper firmly opposed such a move, proclaiming the situation not one of hardship but rather a desire on Webb’s part to maximize business — at Cropper’s expense.

He requested the board not only not allow additional signs but enforce the two-sign restriction.

That request brought input from board staff, who said notices of violation had, in fact, been sent to both farms for an excess of signs. (Cropper admitted to four signs on his farm.) Further, enforcement officers had noticed that one of the two businesses had actually had an increase in signs after the notices were sent — and it wasn’t Webb’s farm.

Cropper acknowledged that additional signs had been placed off his property by Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in connection with a benefit he had held for them at the blueberry farm, but denied having approved the move. Still, board members insisted that signs for his business were under his control in that he could have asked that they be removed.

Board Member John Mills addressed the specific limitations on signs for the farms’ zoning: one wall-based sign of 100 square feet maximum and one ground-based sign of 150 square feet maximum.

Both farmers had admitted exceeding that in number, if not size, especially when directional signs along the road were taken into account. Cropper told board members he was willing to comply with the regulations, so long as the board was not giving the advantage to his competition in allowing a variance.

Webb said his objection to the situation was based in that his farm had been in business first but that Cropper not only garnered customers by virtue of being farther east on Blueberry Lane — first to be seen and reached by westbound traffic from Route 113 and the beach — but that the Lit et Cheval staff routinely waved berry-seekers into that farm from the road.

He also objected to signs indicating that Lit et Cheval’s price for berries was lower than Webb’s. Still, he said he would comply with the regulations if not granted a variance.

In considering the matter, board members were faced with a clear choice: 1) keep the existing regulations and enforce them at two signs per business, with the size limitations that are in place, or 2) allow the variance and likely face a similar request from Cropper in the future.

“If we deny this, all things will be equal and it will be up to the inspectors to enforce it,” Mills said, also noting that Webb’s roof signage was also not among the allowable signs, nor had Webb applied for a variance for it.

Each of the five board members agreed that the businesses should both conform to the existing regulations, voting unanimously to deny Webb’s variance request.

Closing the hearing, Mills noted a $100-per-day fine for violations of the signage regulations.