Code Medicine Needed

Dear Readers,
Bless their big bureaucratic hearts, the city council conscientiously tapped on the brakes just before they drove a steamroller over lost-pet owners, yard- and bake-sale holders, local bands, and protest-groups.
They actually reconsidered supporting Sick of Signs Week. In the end they voted for it (split 3 to 4) but not before concluding that Takoma Park’s sign ordinance needs to be reviewed.
As Your Gilbert — toasted citywide as the “Paul Revere of Takoma Park” — warned in our last post, the city government is holding a “Sick of Signs” week Sept. 20-27. Citizens are encouraged to tear down all illegal signs posted around the city and bring them in for prizes.
What’s an illegal sign, you ask?

* * * * * * *
Ah, the answer is somewhat alarming, even to some of the council members as they reviewed the provisions of the city and county sign ordinances.
Some of the council were under the impression that a sign marked with the date of posting and the phone number or address of the poster, was legal. Well, yes, but . . . .
According to the city staff, it is currently illegal to post any sign on a private or public structure, tree, bush, fence, trash can, lamppost, lantern, bench, city clock, wall, other sign, OR utility pole without permission of the owner (and utility poles are owned by the utility not the city, so fat chance there)*.
That rules out all the places you were thinking of posting that “lost dog” notice, Dear Readers. This was the concern of a resident who addressed the council during the Citizen Comment period, pleading on behalf of lost pet owners whose notices stapled to utility poles are technically illegal and subject to expropriation by participants in the Sick of Signs Week.
She said that utility pole lost-pet announcements are a vital, irreplaceable means of neighborhood communication.
Josh Wright wondered aloud whether the Sick of Signs Week approach is best, saying it came close to “condoning vigilanteism.” Councilmember Terry Seamens echoed the sentiment and said the event risked “dividing the city, not uniting it.” They and councilmember Reuben Snipper voted in the minority against supporting Sick of Signs Week.
Councilmember Colleen Clay scoffed at the idea of overzealous vigilantes, saying her constituents were more “nuanced” than that, and would not heartlessly tear down lost-pet notices. The main target, which all agreed are a nuisance, are the mass-produced “bandit signs” that advertise car towing, carpet cleaning, weight-loss plans, and the like. Mayor Williams agreed with her.
They may be right, Dear Readers, but the city web site announcement for Sick of Signs Week specifically targets “signs announcing the yard sale down the street or asking for help in locating a lost pet,” lumping such signs with the bandit signs.
Whose idea was this in the first place? Who could be so mean as to go after lost-pet owners and yard-sale holders with such gusto? Your Gilbert is not surprised to find that Sick of Signs Week is the brainchild, not of anyone in Takoma Park, but the National Association of Code Enforcement.
National Association of Code Enforcement?! Now doesn’t that just conjure up an image, Dear Readers? Does the image involve a room full of buttoned-up, sour-faced former classroom-monitors? The sort of people who don’t let different foods touch on their plates**?
The association’s web site states that its mission is “to educate, elevate and improve the profession of code enforcement.”
Why, Your Gilbert asks, is free-spirited Takoma Park aiding this plot to burnish the image of mean-spirited rule-mongers? It makes no sense! When these people take over the world – and you KNOW that’s their goal in this – untidy Takoma Parkians will be the first ones against the wall. It’ll be a neat, clean wall, naturally.
The review of these ordinances was, as Mayor Williams said, “very instructive.” It is to the council’s credit that, though they proceeded with Sick of Signs Week, they seemed to realize that in this case the city ordinances are too restrictive and need some loosening up.
Now, Dear Readers, as entertaining as this issue is, this was not necessarily the most important matter before the council. They also discussed revisions to the city’s storm water fee structure. This is NOT the annual fee charged to homeowners, but the fees charged to developers of new buildings. The fees cover costs to the city to deal with additional rain runoff.
And no, you can’t post your yard-sale signs in the storm drains, either.
Daryl Braithwaite, Director of Public Works, proposed a new fee structure that was similar to, but lower than, those assessed in other county jurisdictions. Councilmember Dan Robinson, who has experience as small business developer in Ward 3, spoke up for small developers. He said they are hit proportionally harder than large developers with such fees and asked for the minimum fee to be lowered. Braithwaite took the proposal back for revisions.

– Gilbert
*Apparently, both the county and city ordinances apply. The county ordinance would allow certain signs up to 4 square feet in size, but the city cuts it down to 20 square inches (about index card size). Size is not the only requirement, not by a long shot. A legal “private” sign may not advertise a for-profit enterprise, except for home-centered yard sales, bake sales, and day care services. It must have the posting date and the name of the responsible person or entity. It must be removed after 14 days.
Even if you follow these rules, Dear Reader, you are wasting your time, because there is no legal place to put a sign of any kind. The city ordinance bars posting on any “lamppost, lantern, bench, public trash receptacle, live tree or the Old Town Clock. The county ordinance says signs cannot be ” attached or affixed to a structure or property such as a fence, wall, antennas, other signs, trees or other vegetation, or to any public structure such as a utility pole without permission of the owner.”
This leaves no place to tack a sign. You could staple your index card-size sign to a stick, but where would you poke it? According to the staff, even the public ground between curb and sidewalk is off limits.
**Code enforcement professionals offended by this characterization and wishing to complain to the management are asked to take a number and get in line. No talking and eyes front!


About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

2 Comments on "Code Medicine Needed"

  1. Matilda Plews | September 18, 2008 at 5:35 pm |

    “Councilmember Colleen Clay scoffed at the idea of overzealous vigilantes, saying her constituents were more “nuanced” than that, and would not heartlessly tear down lost-pet notices. ”
    Oh she did, did she. It’s ok to tear down viagra signs but not lost pet signs! Why is the poor guy who cannot get it up any less worthy than the moron who let his dog get away?

  2. Valerie Tonat | September 29, 2008 at 12:46 am |

    My husband has been tearing down commercial illegal signs for years. Yes, he leaves the lost pet and yard sale signs alone. Ironically, years ago we got a citation from DC for a lawn mower repair service sign that wasn’t ours. They mismatched the sign’s phone number to our address. I had to show up for the hearing and explain it to the adminstrative judge. Oh wait, that’s it, let the city send out citations and collect the fines! That will stop repeat posting of flyers by businesses. And we get some revenue out of it. But reform the law first to allow lost pet and yard sale signs. You can’t fine selectively.

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