Illegal signs overwhelm local policing efforts But one activist crusades against 'visual pollution'

July 13, 1998|By Paula Lavigne | Paula Lavigne,SUN STAFF

With a tug, slash and slam of his trunk door, community activist Harvey Schwartz wins another quick skirmish in his crusade against illegal signs tied to fences and fastened to light posts on city property.

Whether they're pushing a sale on cigarettes in Baltimore or promoting a church social in Baltimore County, the signs are transforming too many streets into "carnival midways," Schwartz contends.

Though city and county officials admit the signs are illegal, they say they lack the workers to enforce regulations. And many merchants say they don't know such regulations exist.

But Schwartz and others say ignorance is allowing the problem to grow.

"People don't care," Schwartz said, after ripping a concert announcement -- stapled over a flier for a church social -- from a utility pole on Mannasota Avenue. "There's no civic pride."

On a drive through North Baltimore, Schwartz pointed to businesses displaying banner signs, free-standing mini-billboards and cardboard signs on poles, fences and light posts -- all illegal under any circumstance, according to Donald Small, the city's acting zoning administrator.

Kurt Kocher, city public works spokesman, calls signs posted on city property "equivalent to graffiti." He said people who want to post such signs must get a $75 permit, which allows a sign to stay up for two weeks. And even those signs must advertise events open to the public.

Baltimore County has similar regulations that vary in each zone, said Arnold Jablon, director of the Department of Permits and Development Management. If you complain in the county, Jablon said, his office will respond. But there are not enough people to look for such signs.

City crews patrol for signs and the city responds to complaints. But addressing every illegal sign in the city isn't possible, Small said.

In the city, a fine of $500 per sign can be imposed or a zoning violation notice issued, leading to fines of $500 per day if a merchant doesn't remove the sign. The county can impose a $200-per-day fine on a business if the sign isn't removed.

Businesses have time to remove the signs before fines kick in.

Schwartz's crusades have not been trouble-free. He strained his lower back. He broke the latch on his trunk. Gas station attendants have yelled at him. Someone recently reported him to police for taking a Pepsi sign from Pepe's Pizza, 6081 Falls Road. The police ordered him to return the sign the next day.

He did -- after digging it up from the bottom of a trash bin.

Andy Makris, a Pepe's Pizza owner, said the soda companies offered him a discount if he displayed the advertisements. He said he didn't care if someone took the signs, but was alarmed when he saw Schwartz slashing the sign with a knife.

Larry Beck, manager of Ollie's Crab Shack at Belair and Moravia roads, shrugged and acknowledged that he did not have a permit for the Pepsi sign and Miller Lite banner tied to three trees along Belair Road.

He said he needed the signs because the trees the city planted about 10 years ago block the view to his business. Beck said he would remove the signs if the city asked -- but said his next call would be to City Council to trim the trees.

'A creeping problem'

If the city wants to be efficient, it should go after the big distributors and marketing firms instead of the corner stores, said David M. Lutz, a member of the Fells Point Citizens on Patrol. Lutz said signs on city property are a "creeping problem that a lot of people don't notice."

"The city needs to say these signs are illegal and cut it out," he said.

Both Beck and Makris said they received the signs from beverage distributors as parts of deals, and that some signs were erected by beverage company employees.

Kate Whiting, vice president for public affairs for Coca-Cola Mid-Atlantic, said the company works to comply with all local jurisdictions. She said she wasn't aware the company was breaking any laws.

Liam Fuller, marketing manager for Pepsi Mid-Atlantic, said he knew of sign regulations in Columbia and the Inner Harbor but did not know Baltimore had a comprehensive law.

Some community organizations don't know the signs are illegal. Lucille Gorham, director of the Middle East Community Organization, said her group has fought large billboards, but has not discussed smaller signs. She didn't know signs posted on city property were illegal, she said, and may join with other neighborhood groups to attack the problem.

'There is no end'

Schwartz said when the city lets one company violate the regulations, "there is no end." Schwartz most recently wrote to the county about having Pepsi and Coke double-sided, plastic billboards removed from light poles along Reisterstown Road in Pikesville.

City and county officials say Schwartz's complaints are among the few directed at banners and mini-billboards. That's probably because people are so "anesthetized" by mass advertising that they don't realize how bad things have gotten, Schwartz said.

"This is visual pollution," he said. "I'm offended that I have to look at this."

Pub Date: 7/13/98

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