Looming over the one-story building housing James W. Rawle, Howard County's chief of inspectors, is the huge new E-Z Storage warehouse at U.S. 40 and U.S. 29, draped with several large advertising banners.
Rawle says they're illegal.
County laws don't permit the banners, said Rawle, the county housing and sign code administrator. But he's not planning action against the company because no one - including his boss in the Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits, David M. Hammerman, who first noticed them - has formally complained.
Such is the problem in Howard County, where a strict sign code was enacted in 1972 but where slow submission to the pressures of commerce have allowed jumbles of competing messages on county highways.
"The idea was that you eliminated advertising signs as such," said Edward Cochran, a former county councilman and executive who helped sponsor the law. "All signs were to be identification signs. It was kind of a radical departure from what was done in a lot of communities."
For years, he and Rawle said, Howard County looked cleaner and less cluttered than nearby areas.
But in 1982, the County Council changed the law to allow nonconforming signs that predate the ordinance to remain, and Rawle said those can be replaced with new signs if the size remains the same.
That, combined with the growth of chain businesses, sometimes creates a chaotic collection of signs, though Rawle noted that Howard requires larger signs to be set back from roads, giving the county a better look than other counties.
The last full-time county sign inspector left to have a baby in 1991, and the post was cut from the budget as a tough recession forced cutbacks. Hammerman, a county department head for 11 years, is retiring June 30, and the Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits has no deputy director.
County Executive James N. Robey has included money to hire an inspector starting July 1, but don't look for improvement right away.
"We have to begin to get control of the proliferation of signs," Robey said, for aesthetics and public safety. Some banners obscure motorists' vision, he said.
But Rawle said his office is about a year behind on inspections of commercial signs for which the county has issued permits, and the new person will also conduct rental housing inspections, which is a more pressing need.
That means the county won't search for illegal signs but will depend on complaints.
That leaves people such as Johanna L. Nathanson of North Laurel doing the county's work for free.
"I have gone up and down Route 1 taking pictures," she said. "The county will not respond until you complain."
She sends her snapshots to Rawle, who then calls offenders and tells them to take away their signs. They have listened, he said, and Nathanson said Rawle has been a great help in her effort to keep the county's oldest commercial strip looking better.
"Banners tend to be the worst," she said, explaining that convenience stores get theirs free from soft drink and cigarette distributors.
But, like residents in the Dunloggin neighborhood south of U.S. 40 who also patrol their areas, she has to remain vigilant, returning again and again to keep the pressure on.
"I think the design of Route 40 hasn't been well thought out," said Joyce Ardo, a member of the St. Johns Community Association in Ellicott City. "It's very piecemeal, and it's not just the signs."
Gary Prestianni of Waterloo, also along U.S. 1, complains that "it's quite annoying to see all those signs that are blatantly illegal, and no one's doing anything about it."
Rawle gets help in Columbia, too, from Linda Meijer, the Howard Research and Development official charged with keeping the planned town's signs legal.
She responds to complaints, she said, and calls offenders to demand action. She's always received cooperation, she said.
But Joe Brown, whose Rapid Sign Center in Elkridge puts up legal signs for businesses in the county, expresses another view.
"There's a need for identification, particularly in Columbia," he said, where buildings are often obscured by trees and landscaping and are located on circular roads that people have trouble finding.
Businesses have to tell people where they are, and directional signs are permitted only for the real estate industry, he said. In addition, "people do have to promote their businesses."
Instead of banning commercial banners, he said, "it makes much more sense to allow people to promote their business in some controlled way. I don't want it junked up, but I think there's a balance," the Ellicott City resident said.
That's what residents and Cochran want, too, they said, but they see the issue from a community perspective.
If the county wants to refurbish U.S. 1, or keep U.S. 40 from falling into visual blight, "that has to be controlled in some fashion. If it isn't, the signs will take over, sometimes creating safety issues," Cochran said.
"You go all along Route 1 and Route 40, and you see individual stores stick little 'temporary' signs out that say 'sale today.' But they never go away," Prestianni complained.
Still, community activism has its rewards, Nathanson said.
"Just to see how much better things look. It's great. It's really nice."