The St. Mary’s County commissioners approved an update to a number of sign regulations in the St. Mary’s County Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance on Tuesday.
The three-year-old sign ordinance was recently rewritten by a focus group appointed by the commissioners, expanding the number of permissible signs while tightening some regulations on specific types of signage.
The group included representatives from local signage companies, the Maryland Building Industry Association, the St. Mary’s County Planning Commission, the Licensed Beverage Association, Southern Maryland Association of Realtors, the St. Mary’s County Chamber of Commerce and St. Mary’s County Department of Economic Development.
The group’s recommended ordinance was a constitutional improvement compared to the last sign ordinance adopted in 2016. After considering comments made by commissioners at the public hearing regarding the matter, additional changes were made and the new draft sign ordinance was created.
In the updated ordinance, there is no distance requirement regarding a digital sign’s proximity to a residential home. Regulations that would require images on the sign to be static, with at least 10-second-long cycles, are also included.
Although the outdated ordinance does not regulate display movement or brightness on digital signs, the new draft specifies that a digital sign can be no brighter than 0.3 foot-candles over ambient light, and must have a sensor for brightness control as ambient light changes.
Old regulations did not address billboards, either, but new regulations would not permit any new billboards to be constructed in the county, though existing billboards will be grandfathered.
The size of a permanent sign on commercial property is now determined by the number of vehicle lanes and speed on adjacent roads, capped at a maximum of three signs per parcel, with 200 feet of separation between them. Roads with four or more travel lanes, with a speed limit greater than 35 mph, can not be larger than 72 square feet. The limit would be 32 square feet on roads with three or fewer travel lanes at a speed of less than 30 mph.
The updated ordinance requires a permit for all new, permanent signs, a condition that was done away with when the county last updated its sign ordinance in 2016.
Bill Hunt, director of the department of land use and growth management, told commissioners that he and David Weiskopf, county attorney, reworked the ordinance to address commissioners’ concerns.
“Today’s version of the plan includes all the revisions for the master sign plan,” Hunt said.
“One of the reasons we’re going down this path, I’ve been getting a lot of calls from people concerned with the rural integrity of the county. While we appreciate what the focus group has done, we are working with Bill Hunt and David Weiskopf to find a strategic balance between too many signs and not enough signs,” Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) said.
Commissioner Eric Colvin (R) asked how election campaign signs would fit in with this ordinance.
Hunt responded that campaign signs would be considered non-commercial speech. According to the ordinance, the “total sign face area” on a property can’t exceed 42 square feet, while no individual sign can be larger than 9 square feet.
“So a candidate will not be able to put up a 4-by-8 foot sign?” Colvin asked, with Hunt responding no.
“We got to do something, we’ve been kicking this can down the road for 1½ years,” Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) said of the ordinance revisions.
Colvin agreed with Hewitt but said he believed the revisions limited free speech too much and suggested that a public hearing be held to get feedback on the “significant changes” made since the last public hearing.
Four of the five commissioners voted to approve the sign ordinance amendments, with Colvin voting no.
The sign ordinance can be viewed at www.co.saint-marys.md.us/docs/Final%20Sign%20Ordinance.pdf.
In other business, commissioners unanimously approved a request to repeal and replace an ordinance to allow private landing strips and private helipads in the critical area overlay of properties zoned in the resource conservation area. The amendment to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance will allow non-commercial airports, landing strips, and heliports with a conditional use approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals before getting a permit from county’s land use and growth management department.
The landing strips are to be built on lots no smaller than 20 acres, and field conditions must be low vegetation. Airports are not permitted within the critical area buffer, which spans 100 feet from the mean high water line and business uses of the private strip are prohibited.