Balto. Co. targets temporary road signs Homebuilders say action hurts sales

September 14, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

A recent crackdown on illegal road signs -- the colorful advertisements for new homes, diet programs and restaurants -- has cleared nearly 20,000 cardboard placards from state and county roadways.

But area homebuilders claim that the enforcement campaign -- especially Baltimore County's tough tactics -- has deepened a slump in house sales.

"My traffic has gone down drastically because of it," said President T. Kevin Carney of Thomas Builders, who is building houses in Owings Mills. "Forty percent of my traffic comes from signs."

After a rash of complaints about clutter in median strips and intersections, the State Highway Administration and county inspectors this spring began enforcing state and county laws restricting temporary signs on public property. Not all the violators have been builders, but many of the illegal signs have touted model homes and new subdivisions.

Violators received written warnings about possible fines by counties ranging from $50 a day for first offenses to $1,000 a day for repeat offenders. Baltimore County officials have gone a step further, refusing to issue building and occupancy permits to those caught breaking the sign law.

Carney was one of about 20 builders denied inspections, delaying the construction and sale of his houses, by Baltimore County because of the sign violations.

"I went in and said I was sorry and I wouldn't do it again," said Carney, who had placed signs for his New Town project in the median strip of Lakeside Boulevard.

Builders don't dispute the right of Maryland and its localities to enforce sign laws. But they say the recent crackdown is painful because it comes as area new house sales have dropped 6.5 percent from last year.

Ken Sugarman, vice president of Housing Data Reports, a Washington-based firm that tracks new house sales, says a number of factors are contributing to the slump, including sign law enforcement. "Limiting any marketing effort has a negative impact."

For years, area county inspectors tended to ignore sign violations, even in Harford and Baltimore counties -- where temporary signs are not allowed. But when residents began complaining in the spring, inspectors took action.

"In general, what is prompting the public outcry . . . is they see [the signs] leading to the growth they despise," said Howard Saslow, president-elect of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

Directional signs are especially important for small builders who can't afford other types of advertising, he said. When he put up road signs advertising a model home in Howard County, the number of visitors went from a couple a day to as many as 10 a day, he said.

But, Saslow said, builders must share some blame for the backlash because they placed too many signs at intersections.

State highway maintenance crews have pulled up about 10,000 signs this year, spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar said.

In Anne Arundel County, where a limited number of signs are permitted on weekends, problems have arisen with builders flooding intersections with signs and failing to remove them during the week. Anne Arundel has removed as many as 2,000 illegal signs in a weekend, county spokesman John Morris said.

In Harford County, which does not allow temporary signs, officials have pulled up about 500 placards, but Rommel Crabtree, a Creswell activist who has fought the signs, sees little improvement.

"It's just a waste of taxpayers' money," he said of the enforcement efforts. Crabtree, who is facing a $900,000 civil suit for allegedly removing signs of a Questar Homes Inc. development, wants Harford County to take offenders to court.

None of the Baltimore-area counties appears to have prosecuted violators recently.

Baltimore County's refusal to grant permits to offenders seems to be the toughest action taken. Although county officials had urged builders for months to comply with the sign law, which allows them only on private property, permit manager Arnold Jablon said, "The number of signs was increasing like an amoeba."

Then inspectors changed tactics, tearing down between 3,000 and 4,000 signs in April and May.

"That was to send a message that I meant business," said Jablon, director of permits and development management.

When the signs reappeared, Jablon refused to perform inspections or grant permits until the signs are removed. "That was the ultimatum, and it worked," Jablon said. "The number of signs has been reduced by 99 percent."

"It was a drastic measure," said Jeb Bittner, president of the Baltimore County Chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

Bittner said the majority of builders are suffering because of the excesses of a few. Some directional signs are needed to find new homes, he said.

But Baltimore County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, who had urged a tougher stance on the signs, said, "We have tried to seek voluntary compliance, and it wasn't as effective as our rigorous enforcement."

Kamenetz, a Randallstown Democrat, said builders finally got the message.

He now has turned his attention to other violators, including restaurants and diet promoters.

Ellwood Sinsky, a builder and Baltimore County Planning Board member, hopes homebuilders and Baltimore County officials can work out a compromise that allows temporary signs at designated intersections. "It would really help our industry."

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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