Inconsistent rules plaster community

Signs: Candidates must comply with different rules set by the state, county and 10 Columbia villages when displaying political posters.

Howard County

August 02, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Pity the poor political candidate in Howard County, where the state, county and all 10 Columbia villages have different sets of rules for how long political signs can be displayed, where they can be placed and how big they can be.

And while politicians elsewhere consider it to be a smart campaign tactic to plaster signs on every available surface, candidates in squeaky clean Howard County shudder at the thought.

"It doesn't look good if the candidate ignores the rules," said Jane Parrish, Hickory Ridge village manager.

Still, some canny Howard candidates find ways to work around the rules - once they figure them out.

County Council Candidate Michele Williams, a Democrat, lives in a former peach orchard outside Columbia, so it is exempt from village rules. On Saturday, she tied a large, bright red banner on the back wall of her Sewells Orchard home; it is visible from busy Oakland Mills Road, which cuts through east Columbia, where big political signs are not allowed.

But it's not always easy to know where - or when - to begin.

Some villages, such as Kings Contrivance, Oakland Mills and River Hill, allow signs 60 days before the primary election, which is Sept. 10 this year, as does county law. State law says 45 days.

Harper's Choice and Town Center rules require a permit for any sign planted more than 15 days before an election. It's 30 days in Dorsey's Search, Long Reach and Owen Brown. Wilde Lake's rules say four weeks.

Maximum-size rules add complications. Several villages limit residential sign size to 20 inches by 28 inches. In Kings Contrivance, the size is 2 feet by 3 feet, while Howard County rules allow any size or number totaling no more than 9 square feet at homes and 32 square feet on commercial properties. Harper's Choice, however, requires a permit for anything over 1 square foot (the deadline for permit applications was Wednesday), and Oakland Mills says just one sign per household.

But rules might not govern "outparcels" - homes such as Williams' on land not legally part of Columbia, though surrounded by homes that are.

That's why Joan Lancos' Columbia neighbors could put political campaign signs on their lawns, while Lancos, a Republican County Council candidate whose home is legally part of the planned town, could not.

"Hickory Ridge is like a Swiss cheese [with outparcels]. On my street, the first five houses on both sides are non-new town. The next 17 pay the Columbia Association lien," Lancos said.

After the primary election, losers have from one to seven days to remove signs, depending on the rules. Winners can leave signs up for the general election.

It is so complicated that Steven H. Adler, the Republican county executive candidate, had two volunteer attorneys research the rules to avoid gaffes.

"I think candidates have an even higher responsibility to know the sign laws and comply with them," said Courtney Watson, a nonpartisan school board candidate. "It's a matter of professionalism and ethics, although I can certainly see how an unintentional violation could occur when we are dealing with up to a dozen different regulations in the county."

There are minor slips, of course. Owen Brown House of Delegates candidate Pearl Atkinson-Stewart's smiling face stared at motorists for several days from a purple campaign poster near her home in the road right-of-way, which is not allowed, to help advertise her fund-raiser. It was removed.

And Watson temporarily planted several signs in public right-of-way along Broken Land Parkway in central Columbia while she stood waving at motorists across the street. She removed them before she left.

Candidates say the rules can be confusing, but village officials said complaints are rare and responses from eager-to-please candidates are usually quick.

"A couple of years ago, there was a movement to try to unify Columbia's village rules on signs. Apparently that didn't succeed," said Wendy Fiedler, chairman of the county's Democratic Party.

"Each individual village is an independent entity. [Signs are] the responsibility of the villages," said Miles Coffman, president of the Columbia Council. The council serves as the policy-making board of the Columbia Association, the group that collects a property lien from homeowners and manages the town's recreational facilities. The council comprises one representative elected from each village.

Debbie Nix, village manager in Harper's Choice, said the village board is considering modernizing the rules but not in time for this election.

Brian Harlin, a Republican candidate for County Council who also owns a business that makes and sells campaign signs, said the rules are not only confusing, but he wonders if the regulations are an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

"I get every candidate calling me and saying, `What's the deal, what can we do?' I have a big problem with [governments] telling us what I can put up in my own yard."

Where to put signs is not the candidates' only problem, or even the most vexing, which is why many office-seekers will not plant yard signs for a while.

In 1994, when Atkinson-Stewart ran for delegate the first time, "I put [my signs] up early and they were stolen." This time, she said, she will wait longer.

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