Fenwick signage talks proceed

Even Building Official Patricia Schuchman agrees it may be time for some accommodations in how Fenwick Island’s commercial signage works. But what those changes might be — and how they come about — is still in the earliest stages of discussion.

The issue has become a top concern for a number of the town’s businesspeople — some of whom would prefer to move their signs to more visible locations, others seeking to extensively refurbish or replace signs that received grandfathered exceptions to existing regulations and still others simply looking for more flexibility.

Schuchman was out of town during some recent discussions of the issue by the town’s Commercial Liaison Committee, but she helped lead the discussion at a March 24 meeting of the group.

The first step in making any changes to existing ordinances, Schuchman said, is determining how much of the town’s restrictions on signage resulted from town officials’ concerns and how much came as a result of recommendations and requirements imposed by the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT).

That determination would provide a starting point for any revision to the town’s extensive ordinances regarding signage. Naturally, there will be far more leeway to make changes to town-imposed restrictions.

For her part, Schuchman said she personally supports the increased use of “multi-use” or multi-business signs for those located closer to the highway. She said such signs advertise the town’s businesses better and would be a good replacement for some existing single-shop or shopping-center signs.

Schuchman said a move toward multi-use signs would be “beneficial to all business owners,” particularly in the case of the town’s shopping centers, which generally contain a half-dozen or more shops.

Some shop owners have complained they are reluctant to consider major refurbishing or upgrades to their existing signs, recognizing limits the town imposed on how much of the older signs could be physically replaced and still qualify for larger sizes or locations closer to the highway under previous grandfathering.

That means some larger, older signs — particularly those close to the highway — have simply been repainted or undergone the most basic of maintenance without any significant renovation over a growing number of years. Even sign styles that have been deemed more aesthetically pleasing sometimes have to be rejected out of hand, determined to be impractical in the face of ordinance restrictions.

Both those business owners and the business community at large have expressed concerns that the quality of the older signage and the impression it leaves on visitors could begin to deteriorate under those kinds of restrictions.

Others have pointed out that relocating their large signs to meet existing requirements would, in some cases, force a reduction in the number of parking spaces available to their customers — another sore spot for the town’s commercial district.

Under the current ordinance, signs larger than 30 square feet must be set back from the road at least 25 feet from the Route 1 right-of-way or from the property line when located on other streets. Signs less than 30 square feet in size must be set back at least 10 feet.

In addition to concerns about the grandfathered signs, business owners have pointed out problems with the town’s restriction on the number of signs per business.

In the case of basket retailer Shore Peddler, the shop maintains one of two signs over its location — a two-shop space that previously had and used both sign installations for two separate shops. With a single owner and business license, the second sign has simply been left blank, in deference to the town’s requirement of only one sign per business.

Schuchman said the shop’s owners have expressed a desire to use both signs to better advertise their business, and members of the committee have repeatedly said during their signage discussions that they felt the town’s appearance would be improved if the second sign were not simply left blank.

Schuchman noted that she had suggested the two signs be joined together — the second moved to adjoin the first and create a larger sign that would be allowed under the town’s ordinances. But that would also require the owners to pay to have that sign’s electrical elements relocated.

The building official — not for the first time in recent months — voiced a bit of frustration that she could not simply allow some of the accommodations requested by Fenwick Island’s businesspeople.

“I just can’t let her do this,” Schuchman said of the Shore Peddler situation, emphasizing that some of her predecessors may have allowed some non-conforming elements, despite the town’s written code. But, “I have to literally read this,” she said.

Southern Exposure’s Tim Collins, a member of the committee, expressed concern that the current ordinances do not allow any flexibility from the letter of signage restrictions. He suggested more flexible system be considered — one that would allow minor variations or perhaps even trial use of non-conforming signs, with town permission and on a case-by-case basis.

Schuchman said she generally considered the prohibitions on signage to be good and not in need of change. Her ideas for improving the situation focused on encouraging shopping-center owners to use multi-use signs, as well as some attention to the issue of blank signs, such as that at Shore Peddler.

That likely means that any accommodations for the business owners will have to come in the form of revisions to the town’s signage ordinances. Such revisions top a wish list for the committee, one they will likely emphasize at the April 13 visioning workshop planned by the town for its businesspeople.

Committee members have also been working to maximize turnout for the workshop, hoping to garner as much input and support as possible from the town’s business community. Ideas generated at the workshop may help determine the future direction of the town’s commercial district.

Collins said his preference for the workshop was that it not turn into a forum for businesspeople to express “the pain of their problems with the town,” but that it would instead “get people focused on positive things.”

The workshop should emphasize work on the general enhancement of the town’s business locations, he said, with the planned median project standing out as one example of how the town is working to improve its appearance.

“The town will start to take on a village look,” he said of the median project, noting it might encourage commercial landlords and business owners toward progress on their own properties’ appearance.

Another aesthetic concern the committee had touched on recently is on containing trash and other debris at commercial locations. While a single solution has yet to be decided upon, Schuchman noted that there had been suggestions made to require or encourage businesses to enclose their large commercial trash bins.

She said that two local businesses (Royal Farms and House of Welsh) had enclosed their bins — at the town’s request. Despite complaints about blowing debris in the town’s commercial areas, there was and is no ordinance to force them to do so, she emphasized.

Schuchman did voice support for business owners taking responsibility for such problems, before complaints become rampant, before the town has to make such a request (or consider an ordinance) and in the spirit of the committee members’ emphasis on the communal nature of the commercial district’s appearance. She said, “If the parking areas are kept clean, we wouldn’t need to push for enclosure.”

Trash containers and the general appearance of commercial locations in the town are another of the items on the committee’s list of issues to tackle. They will have the opportunity for expanded discussion of those matters — and signage — at the April 13 workshop.