A SWAT team of sign police descended on Anne Arundel County yesterday, determined to stamp out illegal signs wherever they lurk.
Richard Gauch, chief of the county's zoning enforcement program, said 125 county workers, including public works crews, secretaries, bookkeepers, filing clerks, park rangers and utility crews, will spend six hours this week and next uprooting illegal signs along highways and informing merchants that they have illegal signs on their properties.
Some 20 people were out yesterday, the first full day of the program, he said.
Illegal signs have been a problem for years in Anne Arundel. The program was prompted by complaints from merchants years ago that the county was not uniformly enforcing its sign codes, but that rather than enacting laws to update its sign code, the county should enforce the laws on the books, Gauch said.
That meant gearing up with volunteers, he said.
"We only have eight enforcement people, and there's 400 square miles of county to cover, so we need help,"he said.
One of those who signed on to help yesterday was Kathleen Shatt, a community services specialist, who spent yesterday helpingtear up illegal signs in the rights of way along highways in Odentonand Crofton and serving merchants with "friendly notices" about their illegal signs.
"This is a friendly notice, advising you that oneor more of the signs located on your property is not permitted underthe Anne Arundel County Code," says the notice.
Merchants have until March 1 to comply or face not-so-friendly citations that will mean fines that start at $50 a day and go up to $500 per day if ignored,Gauch said.
Illegal signs include all banners, posters, streamers, balloons, portable signs, sandwich boards and signs with flashing lights, Gauch said. The biggest culprits are service stations, liquor stores, convenience stores, supermarkets, car dealerships, sandwich shops, flea markets and real estate developments, he said.
A half-dozen signs placed illegally in highway rights of way were collected yesterday and deposited in the open hatchback of the county-owned Pontiac 1000 driven by Gauch. There were political posters, real estate signs and advertisements for fast-food specials and garage sales.
Sign collectors played no political favorites. Tucked underneath a "McMillen for Congress" sign was a sign promoting his Republican rival, Robert Duckworth.
Brad Fitch, a McMillen spokesman, said volunteers are instructed in how to put up signs, but that one of them might have become confused about what is legal and made a mistake.
"If you only had one illegal sign out of all that we've given out, that's not a bad record," he said. "You want to make sure you do it right, but sometimes mistakes inevitably are made."
Shatt, who will receiveher regular salary for the time spent looking for signs, said that if she hadn't volunteered, she would have spent yesterday on the telephone trying to respond to people's problems in dealing with county government.
"The businesses I've talked to have been extremely cooperative," she said.
Shatt told the manager at the Lucky's deli and convenience store on Route 175 in Odenton that he would have to remove the sandwich board sign in front of the store advertising "All Milk, $1.99." The "Lucky's Pizza $5.99" on the side of the store and the "Fresh Lunch Meats and Cheeses" on the store front also must go, she said.
The visit left store manager David Weinstein, feeling not-so-lucky. "I think they should wait until the economy improves," he said, a "friendly notice" fresh in his hand. "The way the economy is now, it's going to hurt a lot of businesses."
Across the street at the Amoco station, owner Steve Waldick learned a half-dozen of his professionally made signs are not up to county code, including the sign on wheels that reads "Have a Nice Day."
"They don't really look bad," said Waldick.
"This is a competitive market, and the market being what it is, you have to do what you can to set yourself apart," hesaid.