- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Glossy campaign signs planted in yards and nailed to street posts before the Sept. 10 primary elections are still up in many of the region's neighborhoods.

The rules governing how long political signs can be left up vary in the District, and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Candidates in the District are allowed to leave their signs hanging around until the end of fall but face strict fines if the signs remain up more than 30 days after the Nov. 5 general election.

There's no limit to how long a political sign can be left up in Montgomery County as long as it's on private property and the owner has a permit. In Prince George's County the rules are the most lax, with county officials saying their hands are tied when it comes to removing the outdated signs.

Some Prince George's County residents are annoyed with the plethora of outdated signs slowly becoming roadside trash. "I've got a problem with it," says S. M. Patel, a registered voter and 14-year-resident of Bowie. "It absolutely should be a politician's responsibility to take their signs down."

Some of the signs are on private property, and some are on public land. In Bowie, along Route 197, dozens of the signs remain, heralding red, white and blue reminders of whom to elect.

"We can do nothing about it," said Thomas F. Matzen, associate director of the community standards division of the county's department of environmental resources.

A state law prohibits acting against political candidates who leave their signs up, he said. "The only action that you'll see taken is when the state highway administration will be removing the signs."

Officials with the Maryland State Highway Administration, however, say they also have their hands tied when it comes to taking the majority of the signs down. We "can only remove signs that are illegally placed within a right-of-way of state maintained roads, for example, in the median strips or shoulder areas of all numbered routes," said highway administration spokesman David Buck.

"In Laurel and Bowie, it's the worst. It's unreal how much time and how many hours we are spending as part of our normal duties to pick up political signs that are placed illegally," he said. "The candidates don't see a threat to putting the signs up; they just go out and put the signs right back up again."

Mr. Buck added that the highway workers will "do a huge sweep after the election; this happens every election."

The highway administration is also relied on to remove signs left in the right-of-way of state roads in other counties around Maryland.

In Montgomery County, candidates are required to get a permit to post their signs and after an election, county inspectors drive around and peel down signs posted on county roads.

Additionally, the county has its own law allowing officials to slap a $500 fine on private property owners who don't get a permit to post a candidate's message for more than 30 days, says Reginald Jetter, a division chief with the Montgomery County Department of Permitting. The fine system is complaint-driven, Mr. Jetter said. If a resident complains about a property with signs on it, county inspectors go out and investigate.

Property owners will first receive a notice, warning them to get a permit in 15 to 30 days or take the sign down. If an owner doesn't comply, the county returns and issues the $500 fine.

In Prince George's County, however, no action can be taken to remove a sign posted on private property, and private property owners aren't required to have a permit to post a sign.

It's a situation that doesn't sit well with county residents. Most of those interviewed said that although leftover signs are no more than an unsightly nuisance, candidates should be forced to remove them, especially if they lost in the primary elections.

Mr. Patel, 51, said the signs are particularly bothersome because only politicians are allowed to leave them up and not be penalized. As a rental property owner, he says that whenever he posts signs advertising available rental space, county officials strictly enforce rules to make him remove the signs.

"I think the politicians should get out here and take them down. They put them up and it would actually give them something to do, for once," said Richard Rose, 44, who lives in Annapolis and works for a real estate company in the Bowie area.

"When we put signs up for real estate, there are strict rules for us," Mr. Rose said. "The county will call us up and threaten us with fines if we don't take them down."

Although it is not required for political signs, many candidates still approach the county seeking permits to put up their signs, Mr. Matzen said.

"I got a permit to put my signs up from the Prince George's County Office of Permits," said County Council member Audrey E. Scott, who won the Republican primary election for Prince George's County executive.

Mrs. Scott, who joked that the excess of signs posted throughout the county represented "an absolute plague," said she was not aware that permits were no longer enforced. "I believe that you should have a permit," she said.

In the District, officials working under the "Clean City Initiative" say they've been ramping up the enforcement of fines for leaving outdated signs hanging around town. But one still can expect to see the signs decomposing on street posts until the end of the fall, when the fines go into effect.

Candidates who leave signs up for more than 30 days after the Nov. 5 general election will be hit with fines whether the candidate won or lost in the primary election last week, said clean city coordinator Vincent M. Spaulding.

After Dec. 5, any candidate whose signs are still hanging will by fined $35 per sign. The "delinquent candidates" have their names listed on the city's Web site next the amount of their fines.

Candidates are also threatened with the fines if they put more than three campaign posters per city block. Residents who see a violation can report it by calling the District's citywide call center at 202/727-1000, Mr. Spaulding said.

"It's just an insult to the city that people put these signs up and let them become trash in the street," he said. "It causes additional costs to the city to remove them, and most folks that put them up don't put reliable phone numbers up there."


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