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Man defaces illegal signs on Harford Co. highways After complaining to state, resident takes matter into his hands and is fined $110


Rommel Crabtree is mad.

He's had it with the signs lining the highways that direct potential buyers to new houses in Harford County.

So much so that he's taken the law into his own hands.

Saturday, Mr. Crabtree, 41, of Creswell spent seven hours tearing, hacking and peeling the temporary cardboard signs planted in the ground by house builders and real estate companies.

By the end of the day, nary a sign stood along Route 24 or U.S. 1, four-lane highways that crisscross the rapidly developing southern half of Harford.

He sees nothing wrong with what he did. The signs are illegal.

For his trouble, Mr. Crabtree got a $110 ticket from a Maryland State Trooper for littering.

"I came to the realization I had to do something dramatic," Mr. Crabtree said.

He plans to fight the ticket because he didn't leave any pieces of the signs lying around, he said. He left the signs planted in the ground but tattered and impossible to read. Mr. Crabtree admitted he "uglified" them.

The wood and cardboard signs are illegal on all Maryland's highways -- roads like Route 140 in Carroll, Route 108 in Howard, Ritchie Highway in Anne Arundel and York Road in Baltimore County. Some counties -- Anne Arundel, Howard, Carroll and Baltimore -- allow the signs to be posted on smaller, county-maintained roads during certain hours on weekends.

But Harford law prohibits the signs on any roadway at any time.

"There must be a thousand violations out there every weekend," Mr. Crabtree, a computer science teacher, said. He estimated that he damaged nearly 500 signs last Saturday. His day ended when the trooper stopped him for littering.

The 2-foot-high real estate signs tend to appear in clusters, especially at intersections. Some home sellers display as many as a half-dozen of the same sign at a single location.

Mr. Crabtree said he has complained about them by telephone, letter and in person to Harford and state officials over the last year. But his pleas have fallen on deaf ears, he said.

Gary Bowman, chief of outdoor advertising for the State Highway Administration, said the signs are "a massive problem in the central part of the state and we have limited manpower." Violators can be fined up to $500.

Harford officials said they don't have the manpower to enforce the law, either.

Donald Sample, president of the Harford County Homebuilders Association, called the sign laws unrealistic.

Mr. Sample said that an understanding exists between Harford officials and homebuilders that if the signs are staked after dusk on Friday and removed before dawn on Monday, they won't be confiscated.

"In this county, there are 5,000 people employed in residential homebuilding," said Mr. Sample. "No other private sector employer in the county is that large. Those signs are essential to keeping our industry healthy, and homebuilding is essential to a healthy Harford County."

But Mr. Crabtree, who contends a healthy Harford is one that is unlittered by unsightly advertising, sees it another way.

"We all know why nobody wants to enforce the law. It's because the people who benefit from this advertising are heavy [political] campaign contributors," he said.

He doesn't know whether he will be out "uglifying" signs again.

Some motorists who watched Mr. Crabtree's handiwork last weekend honked horns, waved or gave a thumbs-up sign.

"My legs are still sore and my back hurts from bending over so much," he said. "But I think I made a point."

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