Howard's signs of inconsistency

Candidates must comply with rules from county, state, Columbia villages

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

Because County Council candidate Michele Williams, a Democrat, lives in a former peach orchard technically outside Columbia, she is exempt from village rules. On Saturday, she tied a large bright red banner on the back wall of her Sewells Orchard home. The banner 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 posting signs.

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 by 28 inches. In Kings Contrivance, the size is 2 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 larger than 1 square foot (deadline for permit applications was Wednesday), and Oakland Mills says one sign per household.

Other rules 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 campaign signs on their lawns, while Lancos, a Republican County Council candidate whose home is legally part of the planned town, couldn't.

"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 Republican county executive candidate Steven H. Adler 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. "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."

Minor slips occur. 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, where it is not allowed, to help advertise her fund-raiser. The sign was removed.

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

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