Signs of our times

Howard County: Control of visual pollution can't be left to citizen enforcers with cameras.

June 20, 2000

KEY. Ca Wash. Donut World. 7. Clea Ma. Ma City. ince.

Garbled, you say? Polluted sightlines? Oh yes.

But businesses are certain that the push for name ID, product identification and other marketing goals cannot be achieved without signs.

You could check it out from your car window.

It wasn't always so in Howard. A bill regulating signs passed in 1972, allowing the county to look -- and be -- less cluttered than adjoining counties.

But two things happened: A kind of grandfathering that allowed businesses to replace pre-1972 signs with signs of the same size; and the growth of chain businesses that feel they must shove and shoulder to get attention.

Oh, and there was a third thing that happened: The last full-time sign inspector left that post in 1991 and has not been replaced.

Instead, the county's enforcement effort falls to a sort of anti-sign vigilantism.

Citizens appalled by the clutter take pictures and present them to authorities, hoping for some remedial action.

The situation is a bit better in Columbia where Linda Meijer of the Rouse Co.'s Howard Research and Development office calls offending companies. They usually comply with her requests for signs that conform.

A commercial sign man in the area makes a reasonable point: Trees and landscaping can obscure the location of businesses anxious to catch the consumer's eye. A solution must take into account the legitimate needs of these businesses. The current melange of signs, each one of which seems to obscure someone else's sign, doesn't do much beyond increasing the confusion.

County Executive James N. Robey told The Sun's Larry Carson he wants to get control of the situation.

He could begin by hiring a full-time sign inspector. Maybe one of the ad hoc citizen inspectors would be interested in applying.

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