Signs of blight

By Posted on Jan 23 2019 | By

Littering with roadside ads

Cash for Used Cars. Fast Cheap Internet. Yard Sale. Bush Hogging. House for Sale.

Ever seen these ads emblazoned on telephone poles, stop signs and in median strips? Of course. Ever responded to one? Unlikely. So why does all manner of businesses advertise this way?

Because it’s free. And to some degree, it must work. Nonetheless, it’s unsightly, illegal and growing.

Roadside advertising is simply littering. No sooner than a good citizen might pull one off a telephone pole or out of a median strip the rascals are back planting their crop.

The Code of Virginia prohibits signs and advertisements within the limits of the highway. The Virginia Department of Transportation is authorized to remove any sign that is in violation.

The agency can levy a $100 civil penalty for each occurrence. VDOT also works with localities and the Adopt-A-Highway program to enforce the law.

The law does allow advertising within sight of highways but it must meet certain requirements and require a permit as well as permission from the local government.

You can bet the farm most of the signs have not been sanctioned. Stick it and run is the game plan of the violators.

In 2017, Stafford County cracked down on the practice. Its county parks and recreation staff risk their own safety removing as many as 800 signs in a single weekend.

Dwaine Ware, VDOT’s program manager for outdoor advertising, underscores ad signs are illegal on any state right-of-way unless allowed by permit. Typically, the right of way extends to utility pole lines but varies in distance depending on location.

“Every sign that is illegally placed is subject to a $100 penalty in addition to civil penalty fees. We do remove them but we also enter into agreements with local governments to act as our agent.”

Adopt-A-Highway volunteers also aid in making the signs disappear when they clean their section of roadways twice annually. Unfortunately, the limited number of volunteers are no match for the army of sign planters continually on the hunt for prime real estate.

To levy fines, offenders need to be identified. “If the signs don’t have an address its often hard for us to identify them,” said Ware. The administrative costs of pursuing violators can also mitigate against widespread enforcement. “Individual VDOT district offices are the ones who would remove the signs and level fines.”

To underscore the scope of the problem Ware states, “At the beginning of political campaigns we do send letters to known candidates about the violation incurred by placing political signs on VDOT right-of-way.” We all know how effective that warning is.

A more frequently used strategy is employing VDOT contractors to sweep highways in advance of mowing operations to protect equipment and reduce the multiplying effect of mower blades turning a single sign into a blizzard of garbage.

In addition to blighting our scenic highways, safety looms as another threat to motorists. Signs can be dangerous, obscuring views of oncoming traffic. After bad weather, they can become even more unsightly and dangerous.

Piedmont Press & Graphics
The signs most frequently used in illegal advertising are plastic with inserted wire legs. In the industry, they are known as “Popsicle” signs. They are quick and easy to install and violators can place dozens a day when their marketing juices are flowing.

Where do they come from? “I’m guessing the internet has made it easier to procure the signs at cheaper prices,” said Tony Tedeschi, owner of Piedmont Press & Graphics in Warrenton.

A quick online search reveals one can score a two-color 12-by-12-inch sign for as low as 88 cents apiece but larger signs with colors go for a couple bucks each when purchased in bulk.

The signs present somewhat of a conundrum for Tedeschi who also sells the signs at his shop.

While it’s a legitimate business practice he opines, “We talk about this issue all the time because it’s important. Yes, I am in the sign business but I can also make a living being a good business person, a good citizen, and steward of the environment.

“We don’t question people about the use of their signs but if they tell us where they are going to put them, we tell them if it doesn’t seem appropriate. ‘I don’t believe you’re supposed to do that. I don’t think that’s legal. You should go check with the county.’”

He also knows the town and county is overwhelmed and doesn’t have the staff for widespread enforcement.

Tedeschi says he has never received guidance from VDOT on the illegal use of the signs. “The state does not give us any advice on the legality of them on VDOT right-of-ways.

“I think it’s a good idea if they provided some information. A little pamphlet or brochure that we could give out to our sign customers advising them when they may be violating the law.”

VDOT does not currently communicate directly with sign vendors.

There are myriad legal ways to promote a business, including inexpensive social media. For firms who break the law, it not only does injustice to the environment but it undercuts honest businesses who pay for conventional advertising.

Perhaps the most effective ways to counter the pernicious practice is for citizens to occasionally note an offending roadside phone number and call the company stating they would not do business with someone littering the highways.

At the end of the day, only the bottom line is likely to stifle a practice that’s both against the law and scene-stealing.


Published in the January 23, 2019 edition of the Fauquier Times.

Categories : HAGARTY TALES