Howard's illegal-sign owners seeing orange


Want to make lots of money at home and be your own boss? Need a new day care center? Want to drop your waist size fast? Just look at the signs posted illegally along roadsides all over Howard County.

But lately, you may have to look twice, because of those big, bright orange "Violation" notices pasted over the phone numbers.

Robert C. Porter, the county's only sign inspector, gets the credit for that. He and community leaders say many more people hate the signs than benefit from them.

"The signs are truly an eyesore in the community. It's like a visual assault. We think it's great to see that they're enforcing the sign code," said Debbie Nix, covenant adviser in the Harper's Choice village of Columbia.

"People call up irate and I have to handle the complaints," said Maud Banks, covenant adviser in Owen Brown village.

And the rest of the county isn't immune, either.

"They're all over Ellicott City. It's a nuisance. It kind of trashes the town," said Robert I. Bernstein, president of the Old Columbia Pike Association. Real estate developers have even put sales signs on his front lawn, Bernstein said, and for weeks ignored his complaints.

Ken Williams, president and chief executive officer of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, said the business group has not taken a formal position on illegally placed signs, but added: "I don't think there's a place for that type of signage in the county. There are businesses that work very hard to abide by the rules."

Michael Evans, director of the county Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits, said, "Our guy has put 100 stickers out in the first three months. We're following up."

Howard had no sign inspector for several years because of budget cuts. And because of that and the rising price of advertising, illegal signs "began to proliferate," said James W. Rawle, housing and sign code administrator under Evans.

"It's frustrating for us to deal with. It's difficult to contact the people who put these signs up," Rawle said.

Porter, 51, who did the same kind of work in Talbot County, has had the Howard job for 10 months. Putting the big orange stickers on the signs, Porter said, tells everyone -- the public and those who placed the sign -- that it is illegal. He said he positions the sticker to obscure the phone number or Web site to destroy the effectiveness of the message.

Culprits have 10 days to remove the offending sign or finesstart to grow, starting with $100 for the first day and $250 a day thereafter -- per sign.

If the signs don't come down and the fines aren't paid, the case could go to District Court, though none has yet. Porter said he doesn't know of anyone who has paid a fine either.

"We've had a good response," Porter said, both from violators removing their signs and from the public. He said he uses the Internet to track down the owners of firms posting signs and sends them the violation notices.

Real estate signs are permitted in road rights of way from 4 p.m. Friday through noon Monday, which is why the Long & Foster open house sign at Banneker Road and Little Patuxent Parkway on Thursday was illegal and got a sticker. Also legal, if they have a peddler's permit, are vendors who often sell roadside roses or those soliciting charitable donations.

But many of the "work from home" signs denote nothing more than a scheme "to recycle everybody's money," county Consumer Affairs Administrator Stephen Hannan said.

"Our experience in this office is we have found one or two [signs] that actually offered something other than buy our book or put up a sign. In most cases, what you are buying is the sign," Hannan said.

Porter appears to be an easy- going guy and said he doesn't take the job or the sign violations personally.

"I think I've been pretty successful," Porter said, both at discouraging the small, free-standing signs and in straightening out offending businesses, in part connected to the revitalization project along the U.S. 1 corridor. "Route 1 looks pretty good now," he said.

But Porter is not likely to become bored. Next year probably will bring a new class of sales agent addicted to advertising by sign -- political candidates in the 2002 Maryland elections.

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