Critical eye cast on signs on highways Postings multiply faster than crews can remove them; Residents voice complaints; SHA removes ads, mostly for housing, but can't enforce law


Around 8 a.m., the yellow truck with the flashing lights eases off Route 32 onto the Route 108 ramp in Clarksville and stops on the roadside. Todd Hammond hops out and heads for the cluster of small paper and plastic signs fastened to wooden stakes.

A green sign for Pulte Homes is plucked from the ground like a weed. Then Hammond pulls up the Dale Thompson Builders sign next to it and a nearby blue sign for Ryan Homes. Up ahead, his colleague Sam Ports grabs a cardboard yard sale poster, boldly and illegally tied to the Route 108 exit sign.

"This is nothing yet," said Ports, a utility permit inspector for the State Highway Administration. "We'll have a truck full probably by 10: 30."

On any weekend, the berms near many state highways are cluttered with bouquets of the colorful signs designed to call attention to housing developments. They are illegal. Yet, according to authorities and residents irritated by them, they appearby the thousands, with increasing frequency.

In Howard County, SHA employees pulled up 1,850 illegal signs, the majority of which advertised houses, during an earlier weekend sweep. But the problem has been equally pervasive in other counties where subdivisions are being built, officials say.

"It's generally where new development is taking place," said Gary Bowman, the SHA's chief of outdoor advertising and the junkyard control program. "It's just out of hand."

Many county roadsides are also dotted with signs, but local laws vary. They are permitted in Howard County, for example, from 4 p.m. Friday until noon Monday.

The laws are not always obeyed. The offending signs appear regularly because the people who post them are rarely punished, critics say.

The highway administration, which lacks enforcement powerand can only issue warnings, relies on local police departments to issue tickets to people caught planting signs illegally. The agency is also studying ways to punish companies that use them.

"I would say around 95 percent of the Realtors and the builders, they know what the law is. They just violate it," said Steve Thomas, SHA's outdoor advertising inspector. "It seems like they know the state won't do anything to them."

Builders depend on signs

Thomas M. Ballentine of the Home Builders Association of Maryland said his organization has tried to make the industry aware of the rules. He added that the signs are important to attract prospective buyers.

"There's really very little alternative, especially for small builders, because this is a vehicle that can get buyers from main roads back to locations that, more and more often, are isolated," Ballentine said.

Ballentine said the signs should be allowed "during a short window of time during the weekend hours when most buyers are out on the road."

He cited marketing studies that say 60 percent of prospective homebuyers get to new developments by following the temporary signs.

Residents such as Gary Prestianni say they are fed up with the large number of signs on state and county roads. The Jessup resident said lax enforcement of rules against temporary signs has given rise to hundreds of others hawking diet plans, summer employment and insurance.

"Developers think they should get something for nothing," said Prestianni, who has complained to Howard County and the state about the signs. "Why shouldn't any business be able to throw up a sign anywhere? It's gotten to the point where everybody does it now because it's a freebie."

Prestianni said he has seen real estate signs along county roads well past their legal deadline, and hundreds of others that violate the state's policy.

No compromise

Activist Rommel T. Crabtree of Harford County is being sued by Questar Homes Inc. for removing its signs. Crabtree has been crusading against the signs for almost four years and vows to continue until they are eradicated.

"I just decided that I wasn't going to put up with it anymore," said Crabtree, a computer consultant from the Creswell area. "My goal is to get the signs down."

Attempts at compromise have been fruitless. Two years ago, residents, Realtors, highway officials and other groups formed a task force to study the problem, but the outcome was a stalemate.

"The Realtors said they had to have these signs on the highway for business. They said there's a marked drop in business if they don't have these signs," Bowman said. "So really, nothing got accomplished."

Howard County limits builders to four signs per subdivision on weekends. Fines range from $25 to $250 for violations, said Jim Rawle, the county's sign code administrator.

Rawle said the county responds to complaints about signs, but doesn't receive "an overwhelming number" of them.

The rules may be strictest in Baltimore County, where violators can be denied building and occupancy permits for placing the signs on public property. Builders blamed a sign crackdown last year for contributing to a slump in new-house sales.

In Harford County -- where officials have worked closely with the state to coordinate weekend sweeps -- the signs are prohibited along county roads.

Removing signs

Harford's director of planning and zoning, Arden Holdredge, said the county has focused on removing the signs rather than fining violators. Part of the problem is that it isn't clear whether the individual posting the sign or the company whose name is printed on the sign is responsible, she said.

"It becomes very difficult if the homebuilder comes into court and says, 'It was not an employee of my company who placed that sign in the public right of way,' " Holdredge said.

By 9: 15 a.m., the back of the state highway truck in Howard County is nearly full of signs for Hamilton Reed Homes, Catonsville Homes, Ryland Homes and countless others. With the warner weather, Ports predicts the signs will multiply like seasonal flowers.

It wouldn't surprise Thomas.

"I've seen them in snowbanks," he said.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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