Litter on a stick Temporary signs: Builders and others have flouted sign laws long enough.

September 19, 1997

IT'S DIFFICULT to feel bad for homebuilders who claim they're being hurt by tougher enforcement against those paper signs they stick up to direct people to new developments. They say the temporary signs are one of their most important marketing tools, but such signs are outlawed in some Baltimore suburbs and restricted in the others. The rules have been in place for a long time. It is the builders' own fault if they constructed a marketing strategy that's illegal.

This is not to say the building industry's concerns can be blown off. It is a valuable part of local economies in which many plumbers, electricians, title agents and others make their living. Moreover, the directional signs assist prospective home buyers.

But given an inch, builders have always taken a yard where these signs are concerned.

In Baltimore County, where the signs are not allowed except on private land with the owner's permission, they have been posted on public property with increasing frequency. In Anne Arundel County, a limited number of signs are permitted on weekends, but those those restrictions are regularly flouted. In Howard, which restricts directional signs to four per subdivision on weekends only and bans all other paper signs, the law is routinely ignored. In Carroll, directional real estate signs are allowed on weekends, but, especially in the southern part of the county, the law is routinely ignored.

For a long time, most counties encouraged the industry to police itself and, due to a shortage of manpower, enforced infractions on a complaint-only basis. But this system led to abuse, by the real estate industry and by diet clinics and Joe Fix-Its, too. It has reached the point where the proliferation of paper signs amounts to litter; it is distracting and ugly.

Recent efforts to discourage violations by pulling down signs quickly and levying fines have failed. Last spring, Baltimore County tried both, but builders appeared to find the cost of the fines less onerous than the cost of not competing with other sign law violators. The county has finally hit on an effective enforcement strategy: refusing to perform inspections and issue use and occupancy permits to violators.

We do believe there should be compromise with businesses. But there have to be clear rules -- say, every builder gets a certain number of signs, the county picks locations for signage and decides when signs may go up and when they must come down -- and stiff penalties to prevent people from ignoring the law. The violations may not seem a big deal individually, but collectively they're marring communities.

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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