Weiner: "Illegal road signs invite crime, lower property values & create visual clutter" News Journal
Fed up with the clutter, residents and politicians want DelDOT to boost sign patrols and urge the state to increase the fine of $25 a sign, which they view as too weak a penalty. "They realized that when they're fined, which is rarely, it's the cost of doing business," New Castle County Councilman Bob Weiner said, noting clutter can send the message to would-be criminals that no one in the community is watching. "These businesses make it their business model to prey on communities by avoiding the overhead that legitimate advertising requires," he added.
Sign 'bandits' sprout like weeds; Low state fine fails to deter cat-and-mouse game
Jul 25, 2012 Melissa Nann Burke The News Journal
Sprouting like weeds, lawn signs hawking pizza specials and "fast cash now" continue to multiply along Delaware's highways and byways, despite fines instituted seven years ago to deter illegal postings.
State enforcement officials say they can't keep up with the pace. The more daring sign "bandits" are now shimmying up utility poles or using ladders to post their flimsy, often-fluorescent signs out of the reach of circulating crews from the state Department of Transportation.
"We'll take the signs down on this side, all the way to the Maryland line," roadside control agent Melissa Feldmann said last month while she removed a "Hiring School Bus Drivers" sign staked in the U.S. 40 median.
"We come back on the other side. By that time, they're back. In the exact same locations," Feldmann said of the frustrating process.
Many signs are posted by repeat offenders, according to the DelDOT whose staff enforces the state sign-pollution law. One in five signs removed in New Castle County since 2005 was traced to a corporation with a previous fine, officials said.
Fed up with the clutter, residents and politicians want DelDOT to boost sign patrols and urge the state to increase the fine of $25 a sign, which they view as too weak a penalty.
"They realized that when they're fined, which is rarely, it's the cost of doing business," New Castle County Councilman Bob Weiner said, noting clutter can send the message to would-be criminals that no one in the community is watching.
"These businesses make it their business model to prey on communities by avoiding the overhead that legitimate advertising requires," he added.
State law prohibits the posting of unofficial signs in roadway medians, on utility poles, in the state's right-of-way or in the "clear zone" — within 10 feet of a roadway.
The businesses say they rely heavily on the roadside advertising, and increased fines would hurt them.
"It's our No. 1 way of making money. The signs tell people where to call," said Jason Baul, owner of Bauls Towing in Wilmington. "My signs say ‘We Buy Junk Cars.' We're recycling, cleaning the neighborhood, helping the community. We should be able to put these signs out."
DelDOT says serial violators waste tax money and staff time.
"Obviously, DelDOT would prefer to use its scarce resources on more productive activities," spokesman Geoff Sundstrom said.
Fines began in 2005
Lawmakers instituted the $25 fine in mid-2005 to try to reduce sign pollution along roadways. Roadside agents targeted clear zone violators for a few years, but enforcement dropped off over time due to budget and staff limitations, officials said.
Last year, crews plucked 1,681 signs, compared with removing 3,645 illegal signs in 2007.
Intersection-specific complaints have fueled a flurry of sign enforcement this year, including weekend sweeps through New Castle County this month. Crews statewide rounded up roughly 1,717 signs as of June 30 in surpassing last year's haul, said Jeff Leonard, a roadside control agent for DelDOT.
Guy VanderLek has complained to the agency about the proliferation of "bootleg" signs near his home in the Mill Creek community.
"People who are willing to buy your house or your junk car? It looks horrible," VanderLek said. "It's also a safety issue. If you're looking at all the signs, you're not paying attention to the traffic coming in and out of the intersection."
Some cities have largely eliminated the signs with steep fines, such as $500 for each violation in Wilmington and $100 in Newark.
"We bring them in and give them the ‘Come to Jesus' talk," Newark Code Enforcement Supervisor Steve Wilson said. "They usually comply when we tell them we could fine them $100 a sign. They kind of get that deer-in-headlights look."
DelDOT's citations prompted Furniture Solutions owner Bob Cohen of Bear to limit his lawn signs to one or two special events a year.
"I don't do a lot of sign promotions anymore," he said. "There's the fees, and also signs have to be so far off the road that people can't see them."
DelDOT says repeat offenders often pay up but continue to violate the law. The companies say it isn't easy to know when they cross the line because rights-of-way are varied and unmarked.
Many complaints to the agency report signs for Dominos Pizza shops in New Castle County. Dominos' corporate headquarters referred a reporter to franchise owner Robert Taylor, who owns 10 locations in Delaware. Taylor could not be reached for comment.
Home builders have also racked up loads of fines across the state — more than $15,000 worth since 2005 for Ryan Homes alone. However, the builders distinguish themselves from other sign "bandits" because their placards go up only on weekends to direct would-be homebuyers toward model homes.
"We hire a third-party business to do it, inform them of local laws — be it municipal or state requirements — and ask them to abide by it," said Steven Bomberger, president of the Newport-based Benchmark Builders, who has the vendors correct themselves if he gets fined.
"It would be hard for us to recover if this valuable piece of advertising on weekends — when people are traditionally looking for homes — is taken away or made more difficult for us to do," he said.
Howard Fortunato of the Delaware Association of Homebuilders estimated that as much as half the home buying traffic seen on weekends is from roadside "directional" signs.
Fortunato also raised a common criticism of the sign law: that lawmakers exempted themselves during campaign season (all signs are permitted within the state right-of-way 30 days before and after an election).
"One of the arguments is that these signs are a safety issue," he said. "Why is it OK for political signs during election season, but the rest of the year the signs are unsafe?"
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