By Greg Ellison
(Oct. 10, 2019) After vetting a proposal to replace 13 marquees that require manual updating with a pair of digital message signs, the Ocean Pines Association Board of Directors returned the matter to the Communication Committee to assess their costs and zoning limitations.
The Communication Committee broached the topic during its Sept. 20 meeting and asked the board whether to conduct further research.
The committee highlighted concerns such as light pollution and how Worcester County zoning regulations could restrict placement.
Initial cost estimates for the electronic boards are about $40,000 each, with the responsibility for updating them shared by the four departments at a cost of about one staff day per week.
During the board meeting on Oct. 2, OPA President Doug Parks questioned the break-even point on labor savings versus upfront investment.
“If you’re telling me it’s going to be 27 years before we can pay back the labor costs, I’m not really sure I can propose a value set associated with that,” he said.
Board member Larry Perrone said that perspective fails to account for intangibles.
“It’s a quality of life in Ocean Pines whether there’s a real cost-benefit besides the service provided to the community,” he said.
Perrone said the more significant concern would be the restrictions the county imposes on roadside signs.
The Communication Committee had already found that the county code restricted roadside messaging signs to regional identifications.
The committee reported that Worcester County Zoning officials said even though Ocean Pines’ current signs provide more information than the code allows, that issue was not pursued.
At the same time, county officials said variances to sign regulations aren’t available, and thus can’t be employed to permit the proposed electronic replacements.
County officials said the only option would be to pursue an amendment to code specific to Ocean Pines.
A comparable proposal was discussed roughly four years ago without progress, Perrone said.
“I can remember [former board member] Marty Clarke making a big issue about this, and the county was intransient on making the changes,” he said. “Until the codes are changed, we’re just spinning our wheels.”
Putting aside the cost-benefit analysis, board member Frank Daly raised other arguments to support the signage reboot.
“The argument becomes it’s a safety [issue] because you can get messages out to the community faster in a critical situation,” he said.
By this logic, Daly said a trio of electronic signs that included coverage on St. Martin’s Neck Road would be warranted.
“That road might be more heavily traveled in the future, particularly if at some point in the distant future a traffic circle is put at the North Gate,” he said.
While noting county officials could easily end the discussion, Daly also mentioned fiscal concerns.
“I have a pretty good gut-level feel that the replacement reserve for our manual signs is nowhere near $80,000,” he said.
Board member Steve Tuttle said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that any driving distraction of more than two seconds can cause of automobile collisions.
“I’ve stopped when I’ve seen this big electronic billboards, and you start looking at the thing, and then all of a sudden the guy behind you is blowing his horn,” he said. “I don’t want people in our community stopping to read the sign as it’s scrolling around and … causing accidents.”
In closing, Communications Committee board liaison Dr. Colette Horn said despite the varying opinions offered, the consensus seems to be to gather more information.
“Take it to the next step to see how difficult or easy it may be to get that text revisions with the county,” she said. “I agree we don’t want to put an inordinate amount of staff time into this, but it’s the general manager’s call how he wants to allocate his resources,” she said.
proposed bouncing the topic back to the Communications Committee.
“If they could do it without involving any of our staff and spending any staff dollars, that would be great,” he said.
Parks said that direction would be ideal, and suggested reviving the issue after the completion of the additional research.
“Let me emphatically state that’s one of the reasons we have advisory committees,” he said. “There’s no reason to reach down into staff time to do things an advisory committee is built and set up to do.”