The fights about signs: Signs of something else


SIGNS OF THE TIMES. Carroll communities are battling the billboards. Weekend vigilantes are uprooting the signs of real estate developers. Placards that condemn the woes of Carroll County schools raise questions about their linkage to campaigns of school board candidates.

Put out more flags, ancient Chinese generals advised when their undermanned citadels were under siege by superior forces. More flags were supposed to signal the presence of more armed units, making the enemy less inclined to attack. It was a tactic that often worked, because the opposing commander could never be sure (absent other intelligence) whether it was a ruse or not.

So one questions whether the uproar in Carroll over these signs addresses the real issue, or whether the signs are mere symbols of more meaningful problems.

The proliferation of billboards, particularly in the south, is a reality of information, or visual pollution of the landscape, depending on how you look at it. But their appearance is also symbolic of a more significant issue that divides and arouses the county: growth and development.

If the roads are continually jammed with traffic, and businesses and subdivisions have blossomed all along the most-traveled routes, then billboards are symptomatic of the profusion of development rather than a separate issue of highway aesthetics.

That doesn't mean the surfeit of signage isn't a real bother to some people, even to those who may operate a business on that same stretch of pavement. It can be addressed as a problem itself. But its significance is rooted in deeper soil.

A similar civic conflict surrounds the eruption of signs along highways on weekends promoting new subdivisions and homesites. The cardboard placards direct motorists to the developments. They may be a convenience for potential homebuyers, they may be a distraction and nuisance for other travelers and neighbors.

As has happened elsewhere when these subdivision signs sprouted, some citizens have taken it upon themselves to deface or to uproot the advertising on grounds that they are illegal.

Again, the fundamental issue is not whether the signs should be there, but what the signs represent: growth, development, more people and congestion, etc.

State law forbids commercial signs on highway medians and rights of way. But law enforcers have looked the other way while the alleged infractions occur.

In fact, police are more likely to cite citizens who damage the signs. Ask a man in Harford County named Rommel Crabtree, who has conducted a similar crusade against the weekend real estate signs. He was charged with criminal destruction, and none of the offending developers got so much as a warning letter. He's also been sued by a homebuilder.

Here in Carroll, the spokesman for the homebuilders association was quoted in the newspaper as saying there is a "gentlemen's agreement" with the State Highway Administration to violate the law without sanction. (Is there any wonder that developers lack credibility with a large part of the community, given this scofflaw attitude of their representatives?)

Don't do weekends

The SHA denies there is any such understanding, but claims the agency can't do anything because -- get this -- it doesn't work on weekends. Carroll County allows the weekend signs along its roads, but nearly all the signs are placed along state thoroughfares in this county. While there is legal stalemate, the underlying debate over development rages on.

The imbroglio over signs near Finksburg that attack the county school board's performance also reflects a broader debate over educational issues. They raised concerns about higher taxes, school system spending and annual audits, outcomes-based education, public versus private schools.

The red signs popped up two weeks ago on a vacant lot along westbound Route 140. No one claimed authorship of the opinions. Indeed, the owner of the site disclaimed knowledge of and responsibility for the signs.

There was an immediate suggestion that the signs were illegal campaign signs for two school board candidates, Bill Bowen and Jerry Brunst, whose views seem to echo those critical comments. The apparent furor was over the signs, however, not what they said.

Mr. Bowen denied that he or Mr. Brunst had authorized the signs, which he said were erected by a supporter expressing his right to free speech that was not restrained by the law limiting campaign signs to 45 days before an election.

Mr. Bowen further claimed that he had been defamed by suggestions of illegal conduct, that he fully knew the laws and was abiding by them.

Then, two days after the flap, a new red sign appeared at the end of the row of the signs in question. It urged the election of Messrs. Bowen and Brunst. It had a campaign authorization, and was posted within the legal time limit.

As Cicero reminded us long ago, "It was ordered at the beginning of the world that certain signs should foreshadow certain events."

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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