In the two months since they stepped up enforcement of county sign laws, zoning officials have visited hundreds of shops and stores, ripped out truckloads of illegal signs -- and angered dozens of merchants.
County zoning officials launched a crackdown on illegal signs Feb. 18, dispatching 125 county workers over a two-week stretch to serve "friendly notices" to businesses that had illegal signs near their shops.
Richard M. Gauch, chief of zoning enforcement, said that 700 friendly notices were distributed by the volunteer team of road workers, filing clerks and utility crews that visited shops and stores two months ago.
Illegal signs include all banners, posters, streamers, balloons, portable signs, sandwich boards and signs with flashing lights. Most of the culprits are service stations, liquor stores, convenience stores, supermarkets, car dealerships, flea markets and real estate developments, Gauch said.
He said that about 60 percent of those who received the friendly notices -- roughly 420 merchants -- complied voluntarily and took down their illegal signs.
The remaining 260 businesses received violation notices. Of them, 20 percent, or roughly 55 merchants, complied at that point, he said.
He said the rest -- about 225 merchants -- will face enforcement action, which means visits by a zoning inspector, threats of fines, and court action ifthey fail to adhere to the county law.
Gauch acknowledged that cases against some merchants can drag on for months or even years, withappeals to administrative levels and in District Court and Circuit Court. But he said the 10-year-old law also has led to collection of up to $15,000 in fines over the years.
"The big violators often will appeal, and appeals can drag out for a long time," he said.
But merchants say they are just trying to make a living, that the crackdown is crippling their businesses and could shut some of them down because it is hitting them just as they are coming out of a recession.
Bill Brown said the crackdown meant he had to to take down nine signs that advertised his products and services at Good Old Dave's service station on Route 256 in Deale. Many would-be customers don't realize that he can straighten wheel alignments, service car air conditioners, and sells liquid propane and kerosene.
He has since begun writing letters to newspapers to protest the law, and he hopes to raise enough money to start an advertising campaign to amend it.
"I knowthere needs to be a sign law, but it needs to be revised so it's something that's reasonable, practical. Something that people can live with," he said.
"We're very upset about this," said Judy Lynch, whowith her husband operates the Lucky's convenience store chain. "It'shurt us a lot, and it's going to continue to hurt us."
Lynch saidenforcement of the law has meant that the eight Lucky stores in the county can no longer advertise sales of milk, cigarettes, bread and other staples on their windows and near their entrances.
"It's caused a lot of problems, really," she said. "Businesses all over the county are very upset about this."
In Deale, Martha Burnett said traffic at her children's clothing store, Kids' Stuff, is down 50 percentsince she took down her illegal sandwich board sign along Route 256 in February.
The shop is dwarfed by a marina in a larger building next door that lies between her shop and the highway and makes it nearly impossible for passing motorists to see the shop from the highway, she said.
"It could very well be the difference between success and failure," she said. "People coming by just can't see me. They don't know I'm here."
Janet Brown, president of the Deale Area Chamber of Commerce, said her 200-member group sent a letter to County Executive Robert R. Neall in January asking for a delay in the enforcement program.
By way of a reply, two zoning officials came to one of the group's meetings and spoke on the need for it, she said.
Brownsaid she has noticed considerably fewer illegal signs on roadways near her home.
"They have cleaned up the area, I'll give them that,"she said. "But they've also made a lot of people angry in the process."