City Councilmember Tony Wilkins doesn’t like the illegal signs posted on telephone polls and in the city’s right-of-ways and decided to do something about it.
Unlike most of us who can only complain, Wilkins has the clout to get things done.
First, Wilkins asked the city to clear all the illegal signs off Bridford Parkway and adjacent portions of Wendover Avenue. The city picked up about 80 signs on those two streets.
Wilkins said the streets looked much better without all the “We Buy Houses” and other signs illegally placed in the right-of-way.
But a few days after all the signs were removed, they started popping back up like weeds and Wilkins asked the city to go out again and remove the signs. Two weeks later the city collected over 90 illegal signs in the same area.
So Wilkins decided to go a different route.
Wilkins asked the city why the people who placed the illegal signs to advertise their businesses weren’t being fined and was told it was because the city couldn’t find the business owners.
Wilkins is into social media and he asked for help from all his Facebook friends. In a couple of days he had what the city didn’t have – names and addresses to go with the signs. Wilkins said he found it interesting that none of the addresses they have come up with so far are in Greensboro.
Interim Assistant City Manager Barbara Harris explained that when employees of the city called the phone numbers on the signs they never got an answer. She said they even tried using their cell phones, but the result was the same.
According to Harris, certified letters from the city have gone out to the business owners and after 30 days the city can start fining the businesses for their illegal signs. The fines are not insignificant. For the first sign it is $50, for the second $100, for the third $200 and for the fourth and every sign thereafter for the next five years it’s $500.
Lately it seems that “Katie Buys Houses” is the most ubiquitous sign, and just in a couple of blocks, the owners, if they don’t remove the signs, will be in the $500 category.
On Tuesday, August 30, Wilkins, who said, “I don’t have any desire to become known as the sign Nazi,” held a meeting with Harris, City Attorney Tom Carruthers and Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson, to discuss the sign strategy going forward.
Wilkins asked if the city had the authority to double the fines. Carruthers said that the city did, but because of the state constitution, whatever fines are collected go to the schools, so the city wouldn’t financially benefit from increasing the fines.
Carruthers also said that the current fine appeared to be sufficient to be a deterrent and that just because the city fined someone a lot of money didn’t mean that if the person went to court the judge wouldn’t reduce the amount.
Wilkins also asked if there was a way that the city could keep the revenue from the fines, since in his opinion it was unfair for the city to have to incur the cost of collecting the signs and fining those responsible and not be able to recover any of the costs.
Carruthers said that was possible if the ordinance was rewritten, but then the fine had to be based on the actual cost to the city to collect the illegal signs, which would likely lower the fines.
Harris explained that one of the issues the city had was that the zoning enforcement officers were charged with enforcing the sign ordinance and there were two zoning enforcement officers for the entire city and one of them had recently retired. She said that the time they spent on signs kept them from enforcing other zoning enforcement matters.
Wilkins asked if it couldn’t be made a city policy to have other city crews that are out regularly in the city to take down the illegal signs, and there was some discussion of which departments would best fit into that role. Of course, if the city is not simply going to remove signs like it has done in the past but attempt to enforce the ordinance by fining the perpetrators, then some paperwork is involved.
Wilkins said, “What I’d like to do is vacuum the city of these signs.”
Wilkins also asked if the signs could be considered litter and, if so, could any citizen who saw an illegal sign remove it on their own.
Carruthers said that the city would not prosecute anyone for picking up what they perceived to be litter from the city right-of-way. But he added that he didn’t want to say anything that would encourage people to remove the political signs of candidates they didn’t support. He noted that every election there is controversy about candidate signs being removed.
Carruthers added that the law is different for political signs on state maintained roads where placing signs in the right-of-way is legal and the city knows which streets are state maintained while most people do not.
There was quite a brouhaha a few years ago when the city went out and collected a bunch of signs, nearly all of Republican candidates, along what turned out to be a state-maintained road. The property owner and the Republican Party were not pleased. It all got worked out, but it is one of the reasons the city backed off its enforcement of the sign ordinance.
There is also an exception for real estate open house signs. Basically, they are allowed in the right-of-way from noon Friday to noon the following Monday, with certain restrictions.
The result of the meeting was that Wilkins said he was going to wait and see what happened with the current enforcement strategy by the city, and if it didn’t clean up the roadways then he would think about trying to get council support for increasing the fines.