On U.S. 1, signs of a crackdown

Howard inspector cruises, seeking out illegal advertising

April 16, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Like a commanding officer inspecting his troops, Robert C. Porter cruises U.S. 1 in Howard County in his blue Bronco, keeping a sharp eye out for violations of the code.

But Porter's not looking for uncreased uniforms or unpolished boots. As a newly hired inspector with the county's Public Works Department, he's after more conspicuous transgressions: big banners blowing outside gas stations, beer signs plastered on liquor stores, streamers waving on car lots.

As part of its push to revitalize its 10-mile U.S. 1 corridor, Howard County has set Porter loose to do sweeps of the boulevard in search of violations of the county sign code. He hasn't had to look very hard: In the past two months, he has noted about 100 violations.

"Once one person puts a sign too close to the road, the guy next door thinks he can, too," said Porter. "It starts a whole snowball effect."

Porter's patrol represents a big step for the county, which for years cited sign violations only when neighbors called in to report them - the usual practice in most counties. It's also one of the first concrete actions taken in Howard's planned upgrade of the boulevard, where discount motels, sex shops and mobile home parks stand in jarring contrast to the rest of the well-groomed county.

The crackdown has come as a surprise to many U.S. 1 business owners who view loud and gaudy signs as part of the boulevard's natural landscape. Several chuckle at what one owner sees as the county's effort to "turn us into Columbia, where they've got all those little signs up."

"When I got the letter [from Porter], I thought to myself, `This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of,'" said Linda Pace, manager of the Buttermilk Hill Tavern in Elkridge, which displayed illegal banners for St. Patrick's Day specials. "It's never been a problem before, and I don't understand why all of a sudden it's a problem."

Compliance

Despite such bafflement, Porter is getting violators to fall in line: Half of those who have received warnings have corrected the problem to avoid fines of $100 or more. Porter attributes this to a gentle approach that gives owners 10 days to comply before being fined.

"You have to use psychology. When you go in with a big-deal attitude, you hit a wall," Porter said. "You treat people like you like to be treated. You ask the manager to step outside, so you don't embarrass him."

Some businesses appreciate this, saying they are willing to tone down their signs as long as their competitors do, too.

"Everybody would like it if there wasn't a law against it, but what are you going to do? You've got to follow the rules," said Debbie Marc, manager of the Hair Station in Elkridge.

Not `worth the aggravation'

Dan Donovan, manager of Ingersoll Rand Construction Equipment in Elkridge, agreed, saying it "wasn't worth the aggravation" to fight for a portable message board that he said carried greetings such as "Go Ravens," "Come Rent a Bobcat," "Good Luck, Orioles."

Many of the violations are for banners, which are illegal except during a store's grand opening. Businesses are allowed one company flag per store, and freestanding signs must stand at least 8 feet from the road, with size limits depending on the store's size. All signs must have county permits, which cost between $35 and $100.

On a recent inspection tour of the boulevard, Porter noted several outstanding violations: checkered flags waving above a go-cart track, a car sculpture on top of an auto body shop, a motel sign missing a letter after an electrical fire.

But he found successes, too: A tire shop took down large A-frame signs; a liquor store once covered in beer ads was now as demure as an antiques shop; and Standard Supply in Elkridge had washed off the fluorescent painted sign in its window, despite manager Wade Adams' fondness for it: "We thought it was pretty neat. We had to pay a guy $400 to do it."

Porter took satisfaction in the improvements, noting the "broken windows" theory that incremental repairs in struggling areas inspire greater reforms. But he acknowledged his work is far from done.

Some owners are looking for ways around the rules, saying they need signs to stay in business but can't afford permits. Pace, at the tavern, said jokingly that she would take advantage of the county exemption for religious signs.

"I'm going to paint a cross on each [beer] banner and say it's religious," she said. "Hey, for some people, beer is religion."

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