County Regulations Lick `Popsicle' Signs

Article excerpt

They're nicknamed "Popsicles," but are more like weeds to Washington-area governments that are using a patchwork of rules and regulations to eradicate them.

The Popsicle signs, so called due to their often-fluorescent colors, are planted along roads and on highway medians, alerting home-hunters to nearby housing developments, apartments and condominiums.

But they also irritate those who already live in and around the blossoming communities.

"Say you've just bought an expensive house in the suburbs. The last thing you want is all this litter," said Frank Vespe, spokesman for Scenic America, a national environmental group opposed to "visual pollution."

Lately in Prince William County, where the population has boomed to about 270,000, the sign-planters sometimes cluster 20 or more identical placards in one location.

"We want people to move here," said zoning administrator Virginia "Jinni" Benson. But many say the profusion of day-glo signs is a blemish on the attractions of Prince William County.

"What we're seeing is overkill. When you need one [sign], you will see 50," Mr. Vespe said. "It gets people pretty upset."

Maryland and Virginia laws prohibit the signs along state roads, but most counties around Washington have adopted ordinances that allow the signs on weekends, the busiest times for real estate agents and home-hunters.

In Loudoun County, prosecutors began filing charges last year against developers after some residents - dubbed "sign vigilantes" - brought complaints to a grand jury. As a result, three developers were fined $4,000 each, and a fourth was warned.

The vigilantes, who used to tear down the signs, now take measurements to determine if signs are in the right of way. Often they take photos, and sometimes they pull the signs as evidence to be presented in prosecuting the developers, said Assistant Commonwealth Attorney William "Bill" Fitzpatrick.

Prince William, which has been getting the most attention lately for its plethora of Popsicle signs, has begun tearing out most of them on weekends.

In the first weekend of enforcement March 13, Prince William crews removed 219 signs, Mrs. Benson said. The signs were dumped in a landfill after the builders were identified, contacted and warned.

And instead of the rainbow of colors, in an agreement with builders, a few blue signs bearing only the names of nearby developments are being permitted.

"That will replace the literally hundreds of signs" that have been populating the busiest developing communities, said Gideon Frishman, past president of the Northern Virginia Building Association.

In 1997, the Montgomery County Council passed a "limited duration" ordinance requiring a $22 permit for each sign. Up to four signs are allowed in a limited right of way on Saturdays and Sundays, and county regulators must approve the location. About 400 permits were issued last year.

Code-enforcement inspectors drive around on Saturdays. If a sign is placed improperly, it is removed and a civil citation is issued against the sign-poster. Each citation carries a $500 penalty.

"Last year, we issued about $10,000" in citations, said Roger R. Waterstreet Jr., planning specialist in the Department of Permitting Services. …