The signs shout advertisements from the sidewalks: $1 crabs, day care open until midnight, cherry wood furniture and fresh starts after bankruptcy. They cover telephone poles and sprout up in medians, sometimes getting swept away by wind.
And they really get under some people's skin.
"It irritates me to no end," said Ed Bard, president of the Rockdale Civic & Improvement Association, who called fighting illegal signs "one of my passions."
Baltimore County code enforcement officials say they are cracking down on the common nuisance. On Wednesday, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz visited Windsor Mill to help a crew pluck signs from the sidewalks and snip them off utility poles along Rolling Road.
Under the county code, residents are allowed to remove illegal signs themselves. Bard regularly does that in his area, but offenders have recently made it harder for people to rip them down.
"The new trend is to come around in a pickup truck with a 6-foot ladder, and then they put [the signs] up 10 feet high," Bard said.
Violators can face fines of $500 per sign, but code-enforcement officials first give warnings, said Lionel Van Dommelen, chief of code enforcement for the county. Many people don't know they're breaking the law, he said.
County officials point to many drawbacks of illegal signs. They distract drivers, make the landscape unsightly and contribute to litter. "It's an inexpensive way for companies to advertise their businesses, and it's really not fair to those who play by the rules," Van Dommelen said.
Van Ross, a pastor at Kingdom Center Ministries in Woodlawn, said she also worries about who might be on the other end of the phone numbers advertised on the signs.
"It's like the Craigslist thing," said Ross, founder and president of the Woodlawn Community Education and Development Association.
Many of the businesses that use illegal sign advertising also fail to follow other regulations "designed to protect the public," Kamenetz said.
Officials and community leaders gathered Wednesday in Windsor Mill to highlight the "sign pollution," but said the problem is countywide.
"Ours is just as bad as it is here," said Joanne Hullihen, president of the Greater Chesaco Community Association in the Rosedale area. "In fact, I think it's worse."
Code enforcement officials remove illegal signs when they're out doing other tasks, Van Dommelen said. If they have time on Fridays, they do sweeps. Members of the department conduct some undercover work to catch offenders, setting up meetings to purportedly sell their cars or have their loans modified, he said.
Several businesses faced hefty fines late last year, Van Dommelen said: All-Star Automotive in Essex was hit with a $6,000 penalty; Cash for Cars in Parkville, $5,000; and Perry & Associates in Virginia, $500.
A phone number listed for Cash for Cars did not accept phone calls. The owner of All-Star Auto declined to comment, and Perry & Associates could not be reached.
Last year, the state ordered Perry & Associates to stop soliciting loan modification business in Maryland, saying the firm charged up-front fees that aren't allowed.
When one person clutters an area with signs, others often follow, creating "a snowball effect," said Keith Scott, president and CEO of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce.
"If you don't stop it right away, it creates a whole mess," Scott said.
"It makes my community look trashy and unkempt," said Jeff Supik of the Liberty Road Community Council, who had just filled a whole trash bag of signs he yanked from the intersection of Liberty and Rolling roads.
Supik habitually snaps up signs that have been kicked over or blown away by the wind, but sometimes his efforts feel fruitless.
"Monday morning," Supik said, "I'll be picking them up again."
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