One person’s commerce is another person’s clutter. Hence the outdoor sign war is heating up in Arlington, where spring brings a flurry of “decorations” on telephone poles and median strips presenting suburban poetry: “yard sale,” “earn at home,” “we haul,” “open house.”
My high school classmate Robert Lauderdale is an anti-sign vigilante, as a hobby, mind you. This Saturday he drove me around on his rounds.
Lauderdale’s latest target is the handsome new Crescent Apartments at Lee Highway and Westmoreland St. In just 10 minutes, he counted 33 of Crescent’s “lavish living” signs he says are illegal. In enforcing the tricky rules, he adds, the county is effectively AWOL.
The red-and-blue promos tacked on sticks populate median strips, the no-man’s land by the W&OD bike path, even the Metro stop.
“This is a preventable, pernicious form of litter that a citizen cannot help stop,” which is unfair, says Lauderdale, whose 20 years of confiscating signs once landed him in court, costing him $3,000 in legal fees. The judge required him to cease removing signs erected by the sign installer with whom he’d been feuding, the exception being those in the designated adopt-a-highway area around East Falls Church, for which Lauderdale has the volunteer permit with the Virginia Department of Transportation.
With impressive spycraft, Lauderdale shares the subtler points to which “99 percent of people are oblivious.” Sign companies mark their sticks with stripes of color-coded paint. VDOT places “public notice” stickers on the back of traffic signs warning against illegal signs in its right-of-ways. And many sign installers fail to remove their dangerously sharp sticks from medians once the weekend real estate campaign is over. He shows me a ditch near the EconoLodge-it is lousy with discarded signs and related junk.
“I live, work and play in Arlington,” Lauderdale says, “so it’s no trouble to get out for a couple of hours on weekends and pick up the trash- expensive trash that someone’s paid to put up.”
County officials have responded politely to Lauderdale and his allies. More broadly, in December they launched a two-year review of commercial and residential sign policies. In January they beefed up enforcement powers by no longer requiring eye-witnesses to an illegal sign’s installation for action. In February, they warned and began monitoring Crescent Apartments.
But they cannot encourage citizens to do their own sign removing. “The consideration of something as `trash’ is most times subjective,” a zoning officer said in a letter Lauderdale showed me. He cited safety risks in removing signs near vehicular traffic and warned against trespassing.
Most unhappy with the anti-sign activism are the real estate agents, who depend on the law’s window (Friday dusk to Sunday dusk) during which they can mount directional signs to catch drivers’ eyes. Kristen Mason Coreas of Weichert Realtors told me having one’s sign removed is “an irritant and an expense” that impacts her ability to serve clients. “Our signs are temporary,” she says, acknowledging that some realtors break the rules. “I can see why people see them as an eyesore if signs are up all the time.”
Lauderdale isn’t buying: “There are thousands of businesses in Arlington that don’t use roadside signs, which mainly just promote the realtors.” He has “no wish to be seen as a whacko.” But he shows no signs….of letting up.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at email@example.com