- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

BELMAR, N.J. | Roll up to an intersection in many places and the sign you see might not only tell you to stop, yield or turn but it might also feature unwanted ads for a taco joint, surf shop, miracle diet, or political candidate - or even to urge tourists to go home.

From the boardwalks of the New Jersey shore to the desert cities of Arizona and West Texas and the drizzle of Oregon, street signs, utility poles and even private property are often covered with advertising stickers.

They can pose a pricey dilemma for towns: either spend thousands of dollars scraping them off or leave them where they are and risk projecting what some officials consider a run-down, shabby appearance.

“You want to put them on your skateboard? Fine,” said Belmar Mayor Ken Pringle, whose Jersey shore town is plastered with stickers for surf shops and one particular taco restaurant. “But when you put them on private property, that’s vandalism. At some point, the businesses who benefit from this have to bear responsibility for it.”

Mr. Pringle said he has peeled off hundreds of stickers from street signs, lamp poles and boardwalk railings - all public property. He has considered pushing for a law to hold the business owners accountable for removing the stickers or hit them with a fine if they fail to do so.

But Mr. Pringle is hamstrung by potential First Amendment issues - not to mention costly challenges to a law that would hold one entity responsible for something that someone else might have done.

That’s the main argument advanced by the owners of Surf Taco, a small chain of Jersey shore restaurants specializing in fish tacos that are particularly popular with surfers. One recent tour of Belmar’s downtown and beachfront revealed dozens of the stickers affixed to street signs and lamp posts.

Chris Quinlivan, manager of the Belmar Surf Taco, acknowledged that the shop has gotten complaints from property owners about its stickers. But he said the staff urges customers not to put them where they do not belong.

“We tell them to put it on their own property and not vandalize anything,” he said. “The sticker is for you, your skateboard, your surfboard, your car.

“But once it’s in the public’s hands, they can do anything they want with it,” Mr. Quinlivan said. “Because there’s a hamburger bag on the street, does that mean McDonald’s has to go pick it up?”

Mr. Pringle is particularly irked about stickers on the new decorative railings and lampposts along the boardwalk. Peeling stickers off invariably chips away paint, leaving ugly metal patches that can then quickly rust in the salt air if not repainted right away.

“It’s like graffiti,” he said. “If you leave it there you just get more, and it conveys a sense of a lack of care.”

Andrew Suber, editor of West Texas Weekly, a Web site in Alpine, Texas, caused a flap in neighboring communities in February when he began affixing stickers for his site on utility poles and newspaper vending boxes.

“I’m of the view that controversy is a good thing,” he said. “I did it with the knowledge that it would probably irritate people.

“Instead of paying 50 or 75 cents or a dollar to buy a newspaper, I wanted people to know they could go to my Web site for free, so I started putting the stickers on newspaper vending machines,” he said. “It was kind of an immature, cheap publicity stunt.”

But it worked. In addition to starting a vigorous debate on free speech and private-property rights, the stickers drove additional traffic to his Web site - which now includes video of him scraping off some of the stickers from a Chamber of Commerce bulletin board.

“I got to be the bad guy,” he said, “and, at the same time, to redeem myself.”

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