Harford man wages war on illegal real estate signs Builder charges him in complaint with theft

April 06, 1997|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Harford County activist Rommel Crabtree was recently seen carrying a sign instead of destroying it.

Crabtree was picketing with supporters at the County Courthouse in Bel Air last month to protest criminal charges against him in the theft and destruction of illegal real estate signs.

The computer consultant could receive a 15-year prison sentence in the unusual case that is being watched closely by activists and real estate companies statewide.

"Of course I don't want to go to jail," he said as demonstrators walked by him and drivers honked in support. "I have a family to take care of, but I see this as an issue of political corruption and something needs to be done about it."

The dispute centers on the multitude of illegal signs -- many of them made of colorful cardboard and attached to wooden stakes -- dotting the landscape throughout Harford. As the county has continued its expansive growth, the signs directing drivers to housing developments and properties have bloomed almost constantly on roads and highways.

State and local law prohibits the placing of the signs in rights of way. But officials say enforcement of the law is difficult.

"I understand Mr. Crabtree's frustration, but it is not a simple issue," said Arden C. Holdredge, Harford's director of planning and zoning. "There are legal issues such as being sure and clear that they are on county roads and not private property. There has also been the question of whether we have the jurisdiction to remove them from state roads."

Holdredge said the county and the State Highway Administration plan stricter enforcement of the law and sent letters to builders and real estate associations saying that weekend enforcement is set to begin. Part of the problem is the lack of staff available to confiscate the signs, she said.

"I don't have the money in my budget, the equipment needed or the available people," she said. "The Department of Public Works is going to have to handle it and we cannot assess fines against violators. We'd have to go through the court system to do that."

The signs have caused an uproar in several Maryland communities as residents have complained that they are eyesores.

Ella White Campbell, a Randallstown community activist, said that Crabtree should be commended. "I call Rommel a champion of justice," she said.

The case against Crabtree started two years ago, when he began weekend forays to remove the signs. In September 1995, he set off a controversy by damaging and removing hundreds of the illegal signs in a tour of the Bel Air, Abingdon and Forest Hill areas.

Questar Homes Inc., sued Crabtree, seeking $900,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. That suit, which is pending, was followed by a criminal complaint charging Crabtree with theft and malicious destruction of Questar's signs.

Diane Nelson, a Questar employee who filed the criminal charges, declined to comment. Calls to a Questar lawyer were not returned.

But prosecutor Diana A. Brooks said the case is highly unusual and Harford State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly is reviewing it to decide how to proceed.

"From a legal standpoint, theft charges may be viable, but that has still not been decided yet," Brooks said.

Crabtree does not deny having destroyed and taken down signs in the past, but said he did not take down signs from the Arborview development in Riverside, as Questar has alleged. His mission is to make people aware of the politics behind the issue, he said.

"These developers and builders contribute large sums of money to politicians, and for that they are able to break the law," Crabtree said. "Cleaning up litter is not a crime, and that is all I did."

Robert Kappus, president of the Harford County Home Builders Association, dismissed Crabtree's claims of political corruption and said his organization has worked with state and county officials to police its members. The signs provide a service to prospective buyers, he said.

"Our feeling is that what Rommel has been doing, with his rampages of going up and down the highway ripping up signs, has been creating a much larger mess than we have," Kappus said. "The signs are no different from the ones churches use to advertise bake sales or Girl Scouts use to sell cookies. They are just providing people with directions."

But Westminster farmer Don Frock, who with his brother David has taken down signs in Carroll County, said more attention should be focused on prosecuting companies that put up illegal signs instead of going after Crabtree.

"I think it's ... absurd that he is being charged when these Realtors are so clearly breaking the law," Frock said. "All Rommel is doing is getting rid of disposable trash."

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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