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Mobtown Beat

Times of the Signs

Despite ordinance, city littered with illegal signs

Frank Hamilton

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 7/29/2009

On a weekday afternoon in December 2008, Robert Strupp hand-carried a single illegally posted sign into the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development. Following the dictates of the regulations associated with a city ordinance passed two years before, he tried to give it, along with photos and an affidavit detailing where and when it was retrieved, to the clerk in Room 128.

"And they were befuddled, and didn't know what to do," Strupp, director of research and policy for the Community Law Center, recalls, "so they sent us up to Jason Hessler."

Hessler, the acting director of the code-enforcement legal section, is the city lawyer in charge of prosecuting (for want of a better term) ordinances like this. He took the sign, shook Strupp's hand, and promised action within 30 days.

Eight months later, the sign scofflaw has not paid a fine, nor has he been scheduled for a hearing.

The proliferation of "We Buy Houses" and other illegal signs (they're called "bandit signs" by the freelance real-estate investors who post them) has been an issue in Baltimore and other cities for decades. Critics say the signs draw the unwary into bad deals at best, fraud at worst, even as they trash neighborhoods that, often, already have more than their share of aesthetic challenges.

"I think of these signs as trash on a stick," says 14th District Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D). "Not only are they litter . . . they are seriously jeopardizing some people's lives. These cell [phone] numbers [on the signs] lead to naïve people really believing they can get a deal with this 'we buy houses' scam. It's not just litter, it's fraud."

Since at least 2005, Clarke has championed tougher penalties for violators, including the so-called "citizen arrest" provision that deputizes neighborhood people to take the signs down and even direct part of any fines collected to a charity, such as the neighborhood association.

In 2006, Clarke organized sign-clipping rallies in an effort to move her ordinance ("Signs, Everywhere Signs," Mobtown Beat, April 12, 2006), and it passed a few months later, in June of that year.

But the ordinance languished. With no "rules" associated with it--no instructions detailing how the law should be carried out--would-be sign vigilantes could do nothing on the legal front (though many continued to remove the signs on their own). The original ordinance put the Department of Public Works in charge of sign enforcement, but the next year, the council shifted responsibility to Housing, which took its time writing the rules. They were adopted on Sept. 25, 2008, more than two years after the original ordinance was passed.

"So as a result of those finally-adopted regulations, in 2008, we put together our test case," Strupp says.

Since then, he has spoken with Hessler by e-mail and, occasionally, by phone. On June 1, Hessler e-mailed Strupp, saying his office was able to issue citations on 11 of the 21 signs it had received thus far: "At this point, I believe that none of the fines have been paid nor have there been any hearings held. There was a hearing requested on the sign you sent in, but as of two weeks ago no hearing had been scheduled yet. When I checked, they were behind on setting hearings."

There was no further news by July 23, when City Paper reached Hessler at his office.

"Ideally, the people would pay the citations and stop doing it," Hessler says. But the law says they can request a hearing, and those are arranged through the Environmental Control Board. "They're pretty swamped," Hessler says.

The news is not all bad, says Hessler, whose duties run the gamut from enforcing housing-code violations to testifying in federal court as part of the city's suit against Wells Fargo ("The Victim Who Wasn't There," Mobtown Beat, July 15). "We've stepped up the proactive end of issuing citations," he says, by sending out code enforcers on "sweeps" of certain neighborhoods. "We're not waiting for the community," he concludes.

That's news, however, to Clarke. "I haven't seen it," she says. "That's all I can say."

Clarke says she has not kept close tabs on the signs issue for the past five months or so, because she thought the enforcement glitches had been straightened out. She says she is disappointed to hear otherwise. "I've never been able to get the city to really acknowledge the right of neighborhood people to basically issue citations for these illegal acts," she says. "It's a matter of will to go forward."

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