Making a Monkey of Sign Controls

September 10, 1992

Along with Brooklyn Park, we mourn the loss of the Ritchie Car Wash gorilla, a victim of Anne Arundel County's crackdown on illegal signs.

It's too bad he has to go. He's one of those quirky landmarks everybody looks for, and somehow he fits in with the phantasmagoria that is Ritchie Highway. Alas, the 6-foot mechanical ape, which for years has stood on the sidewalk waving to potential customers, is classified as a "portable sign," illegal under the Anne Arundel County zoning code. By today, his owner must take him off the street or face stiff fines and criminal prosecution.

The zoning enforcement office has left itself open to ridicule on this one. It looks like a nitpicking extremist for making the car wash take down the gorilla. Even other county officials have complained that zoning enforcement interprets regulations in a vacuum, not in the real world.

But enforcement officers aren't to blame for the gorilla's fate; their job is to find illegal signs and get rid of them, and that's what they did here. The problem is the sign law itself, a measure that makes no allowance for creativity and no exception for the entrepreneur who comes up with something different to attract customers.

The gorilla survived this long only because the county has never consistently enforced its sign ordinance -- a fact that has led to a proliferation of sign litter from the Baltimore City line all the way to Calvert County. The county tried to correct the problem by drafting a new sign law, but businesses threw such a fit that the bill was killed. That was when County Executive Robert R. Neall decided that if nobody wanted a new law, he was going to start enforcing the old one.

As a result of the stepped-up enforcement, hundreds of merchants have been forced into compliance or threatened with fines or court action. Yet the average person driving through Anne Arundel would never know anything had changed. Ritchie Highway looks as cluttered with unsightly junk as ever. It doesn't seem fair that a crackdown on illegal signs should leave such a mess, but take something as inoffensive as the car wash gorilla.

Sign laws are tricky things. They must be tough enough to protect the landscape without imposing an economic burden on business owners. They should be flexible enough to distinguish between signs that are trash and signs that reflect creativity and individual charm. Anne Arundel's existing law clearly doesn't meet this standard. Maybe the time is right to design one that does.

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