Busting `Bandit' Signs

Officials want to toughen laws on the display of portable advertisements at intersections along county rights of way


Sign. Sign. Everywhere a sign.

Anne Arundel County - as do many other locales across America - wants to put a stop to that.

Specifically, the county wants to severely limit those portable signs on sticks that tend to stack up at major intersections even when traffic doesn't. Standing 2 feet off the ground, they advertise landscaping, cheap mortgage rates and going-out-of-business sales.

They're called "bandit" signs, and if legislation proposed by County Executive Janet S. Owens passes the County Council - part of a revision of dozens of zoning rules - county inspectors will be permitted to immediately uproot any signs on the county right of way and stick a removal charge to business owners.

If testimony last week before the council was any indication, residents throughout the county want the signs to disappear. Several referred to them as portable graffiti, a harbinger of crime, a safety menace to drivers who slow down to read them and those who try to retrieve them.

A $2 sign placed in a busy intersection can attract thousands of potential customers a day, making for one of the cheapest and most effective forms of advertising available, said Bill Lamb, an Annapolis real estate broker and a staunch opponent of bandit signs.

So if one is good and two are better, why not put up hundreds of signs?

That's the philosophy of some small businesses. David Hartcorn of Arnold said the "proliferation" of signs is leading to the degradation of communities along major roads in Anne Arundel County.

"I don't think there would be a square foot of open space left in this county if all businesses were allowed to do this," Hartcorn said.

The disgust that residents feel over the flimsy, stubby signs is not reserved to Anne Arundel County.

In Baltimore, City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke introduced a bill in March to double fines for illegal signs found on public property. In Baltimore County, code enforcers rounded up thousands of signs late last year.

Communities across the country are fighting back against bandit signs. Last fall in Gastonia, N.C., residents and city workers removed illegal signs in a daylong event called "Pole Patrol." Three years ago in Sacramento, Calif., officials sponsored a similar event.

The heart of the sign liberation movement is in Texas, where an activist group called the Citizens Against Ugly Street Spam formed in 1997. Although the Texas legislature rejected a bill this year that would have made it easier to penalize the makers of bandit signs, San Antonio has moved to drive those bandits from its city limits.

The San Antonio City Council passed an ordinance in June that classifies bandit signs as "abandoned trash" and allows anyone to remove them without informing the owner. A city department sponsored a training session this month for people who want to legally remove bandit signs.

In Anne Arundel, county zoning inspectors are tasked with policing illegal signs. Placing bandit signs within the county right of way is illegal under existing law, but an inspector must notify violators in writing before the signs are removed. Violators may keep them up by appealing the ruling to the county's Board of Appeals.

The new legislation would enable an inspector to immediately remove signs upon discovering a violation. It would also empower the county to charge violators for the removal of signs. Zoning officials are drafting a cost schedule for sign removal.

Under the current rules, sign owners are fined $125 for the first violation, $500 for the second and $1,000 for each thereafter. The fines remain unchanged in the proposed legislation. Opponents of bandit signs asked the County Council last week to take up amendments to significantly increase those fines.

Under the proposed legislation, the county would continue to allow for the weekend posting of directional signs for open houses and yard sales.

Some business owners said the advertising power of portable signs is the only thing that keeps them running.

Ed Schmansky of Pasadena is in the fourth year of running his home-based business. He releases trained doves at weddings, memorials and other social events.

Schmansky said he has advertised his business in local newspapers and the phone book. He has a Web site and has attended bridal shows. But he said that nothing has been as effective in drawing customers as the street signs he puts out.

Last year, Schmansky's business handled 14 events. Through last weekend this year, he's at 36, with several other dates lined up.

"This was a make-or-break year for us," Schmansky said.

He said that he and other businesses would be willing to limit their sign use to the weekend, just as real estate agents are required to. But of the ban as it is now proposed, he said, "It would pretty much wipe us out."


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