Carroll County deals with sign of next election Zoning doesn't ban it, but state is removing clutter along highways

September 10, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

On the highways and back roads of Carroll County, hundreds of political signs hang on barn sides, sprout in cornfields and call from the neighbor's yard.

Hand-painted signs for County Commissioner Richard T. Yates have red smiley faces. School board candidate James E. Reter made his signs resemble a chalkboard. Others are simply large stenciled letters on plain backgrounds.

It's politics at its most frugal and folksy in Carroll County.

With little television or radio advertising and 453 square miles of predominantly rural geography, road signs are the main route to name recognition and the linchpin of a successful campaign.

Because more than half of the county's work force leaves Carroll every day, signs line every major route to capture commuter attention. The vote-for pleas spill across borders and mingle with missives from Howard and Baltimore county candidates.

The sign proliferation has not escaped the notice of the State Highway Administration, which is fiercely protective of its medians and rights of way. State crews removed 103 signs from routes in Carroll last week, including a large one at Route 26 and Salem Bottom Road. It belonged to incumbent Sheriff John H. Brown.

"We had warned him," said Steve Thomas, engineering technician.

Among the metropolitan counties, Carroll seems to post the most road signs. It has the most candidates in the primary. Nineteen are vying for three Carroll County commissioner seats; nine are trying for three spots on the school board; and races are contested for the state legislature, sheriff and several minor offices.

Kenneth Tregoning, sheriff's candidate, took days to cut out stencils and spray-paint hundreds of signs in his driveway.

Incumbent Commissioner Donald I. Dell has mixed new signs with old ones in his try for a third term.

"They might look a little shabby, but at 70 mph, people don't notice shabby," he said.

Dell acknowledges that posting signs and keeping them graffiti-free is constant work, but necessary and worthwhile.

"It puts your name out there," said Dell. "Somebody might catch up to me if I don't."

Name recognition is more important than a candidate's politics, said Richard Vatz, professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University.

At the local level, signs build name identity and add momentum to the campaign, said Kevin Igoe, a Republican political consultant who works mostly in Prince George's County.

On Route 140, candidates' messages compete with a deli ad for charbroiled beef and glitzy notes about new subdivisions. On Route 26, the heart of Carroll's most populated area, politics mesh with news of a PTA fund-raiser. At the Route 91 and 140 intersection, so many signs bunch at each corner that reading a single one is nearly impossible.

Only a few signs are slickly professional, with most candidates spending less than $1,000 for roadside advertising, according to preliminary finance reports.

Carroll has no zoning regulations on political signs, so it lets almost anything go, but the state takes a more rigid tack. Valerie Burnette Edgar, SHA spokeswoman, said the impromptu collection last week was in response to complaints.

But not everyone is annoyed. Ed Primoff, a Woodbine farmer, has about two dozen signs posted on his Route 97 property.

"Signs are a way to promote a person or an idea," Primoff said. "They are a First Amendment right."

Pub Date: 9/10/98

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