Sunday, December 3, 2023

Update: Surf City Planning Board tables vote to lift ban on LED signs for businesses

The Surf City Planning Board voted to allow LED message signs, like the one pictured on Market Street in Wilmington advertising free WiFi. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Clarification: The Planning Board did not vote on the topic, instead, they agreed to table to topic until March 12. After that vote, the Town Council would then have to take the topic under consideration and cast the final vote in favor of or against the proposal.

SURF CITY — Following recent requests from a local builder and a swimwear and beach souvenir shop, the Surf City Planning Board tabled a vote that would lift a ban on businesses in commercial districts from displaying programmable LED message signs.

However, specific updates to the town’s law pertaining to LED signs — Section 6.19 of Appendix A — were tabled until the board meets again next month. If the amendment is approved and a formal recommendation is made by the Planning Board during its March 12 meeting, it would then go to a vote before Council on April 7.

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Discussion to amend the law came in response to two requests by local businesses in December to display light emitting diode (LED) signs from their properties. The first was from Mohamad “Mo” Afify of A’n’A Builder’s, which shares a building with Access Realty on Highway 50 directly opposite of McDonald’s, according to new Surf City Town Planner Amy Kimes.

“During this same time frame we also received an additional request for an LED sign from Kings located on Roland Avenue,” Kimes wrote in a request to the Planning Board to amend the town’s sign law. “As these signs are becoming more prevalent staff would like to propose a change in advance of future requests.”

During a Planning Board work session on December 12, the board directed planning staff to research regional municipalities and counties that either allow LED signs — and if so, their specific requirements for doing so — or do not allow such signs.

According to their research, the following beach towns and villages prohibit LED signs: North Topsail Beach, Topsail Beach, Kure Beach, Southport, Bald Head Island, Caswell Beach, Emerald Isle, and Pine Knoll Shores.

Meanwhile, Carolina Beach, Morehead City, and Atlantic Beach allow LED signs with various restrictions. Sunset Beach, Ocean Isle, and Indian Beach do not address illuminated signs, according to the planners’ research.

In April 2016, Surf City Council passed the current law allowing government buildings, churches, and schools to display LED signs. It also allowed gas stations to display illuminated gas prices.

“At this time I am requesting that the Board consider allowing LED signs in all commercial districts,” Kimes wrote in the request to the planning board before Thursday evening’s meeting.

On Thursday, board members discussed the specific language of the ordinance and the restrictions to include, according to Kimes. An updated ordinance request, based on that discussion, will be brought to the Planning Board in April.

Changes to the amendment presented to the board on Thursday (see a full outline at the bottom of the article) will include the following, according to Kimes:

  • The frequency of the message change (Thursday’s proposed amendment stated that the displays on electronic ‘changeable copy’ signs shall not change more frequently than once every eight seconds).
  • Addition of language prohibiting blinking, flashing, flickering, oscillating, rotating, or scrolling, as well as any sounds.
  • Limiting the number of LED signs per development.
  • Clarifying that LED signs cannot be stand-alone and must be a portion of the overall sign.

Kimes and her staff used example ordinances from Brunswick County — and one provided by Afify, who made the request for his business in December — to create the proposed ordinance and its various requirements.

Neon signs are not addressed in the current law, nor were they addressed in the proposed amendment, but Kimes said the current law does not allow neon lighting — and neither will the amended law.

She said the following statement, or something similar, will be added to the updated amendment request for further clarification: “The message board lighting shall be limited to LED or similar low-intensity lighting.”

Proposed additions to signs law

Thursday’s proposed changes or additions to Surf City’s ordinance are outlined below; they are now going back to planners’ desks for updates and will again be presented to the Planning Board in March.

[Note: The proposed changes to the current law are marked in italics. Minor edits have been made for clarification.]

1. Electronic ‘changeable copy’ signs — those that use computer-generated messages or other electronic means of changing the displayed text — shall be freestanding only.

2. Freestanding signs utilizing LED technology may not exceed 8 feet in height and must be 7.5 feet from all property lines.

3. The LED portion of the sign may not exceed 30% of the permitted sign face or 30 square feet.

4. All electronic changeable copy signs shall be installed with light sensitive automatic dimming controls.

5. All electronic changeable copy signs shall be designed and equipped to freeze the sign in one position with no more than the maximum allowable illumination if a malfunction occurs.

6. Sign copy (text) changes shall not change displays more frequently than once every eight seconds. Public emergency messages or public service announcements may change displays as frequently as once every five seconds only if the entirety of the sign face is comprised of the message or announcement and no commercial message is displayed.

Old Text: Message shall change a maximum of one (1) time per 24-hour period. During the display period all information shall be static.

7. Maximum brightness shall be 5,000 nits (a unit of luminance measurement) during daylight hours (dawn to dusk) and 150 nits during nighttime hours. The applicant or the sign manufacturer must provide either written certification from the manufacturer that the light intensity has been factory-programmed not to exceed above listed light levels or provide an isolux lighting plan certified by an electrical engineer.

8. Light ‘trespass’ shall not exceed .3 foot candles at any property line.

9. Electronic changeable copy/LED signs shall not be allowed in residential districts.

10. No electronic changeable copy/LED signs within 150 feet of an agricultural or residential zoning District may be illuminated between the hours of 12:00 midnight and 7:00 am.

11. Prior to permitting, the applicant shall submit a signed letter from the sign manufacturer stating that the sign is equipped with the ability to comply with these regulations. The applicant shall also submit a signed letter from the sign owner or operator stating that they have read the regulations and will not tamper with the manufacturer preset illumination settings.

12. Traditional signs, in compliance at the time of this ordinance, changing over to LED bulbs to illuminate a sign are not included in this section of the ordinance and must still comply with all elements of the lighting ordinance for the town.

Proposed removals of signs law

Meanwhile, the proposed amendment included dropping the following text:

1. The signs are only allowed in G1 Governmental for all uses and in O/I and C3 districts for churches and schools. Gas stations in the C3 district may display gas prices only.

2. No variations in light intensity during the static period of display are permitted.

3. Signs may only use a single color at any given time and colors shall be limited to white, amber, green, or red.

Send comments and tips to Mark Darrough at or (970) 413-3815

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