Time of the signs: How many is too many?

PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO

Big sprouts in townsville

April showers bring May flowers, but some man-made symbols of spring are just as predictable in Central Virginia: real estate signs. And although it's natural that anyone selling a home wants to get the word out, some signs cross a legal line– particularly when they're placed blocks– sometime even miles– from the property they're promoting.

"I don't like the trend," says associate broker Roger Voisinet. "It's not professional, and it's become excessive. It's almost gotten to the point that they think they have to put a sign on every corner."

Enforcement lags

Particularly disturbing to Voisinet, an agent with ReMax Realty Specialists, are the ever-increasing sign clusters at neighborhood entrances.

"In some subdivisions, the signs are growing like mold in a damp basement," he says.

"I find them extremely distracting," says Angie McCray, who commutes downtown each day by taking the Locust Avenue exit from the Route 250 Bypass. "When you come up that ramp, you need to be able to concentrate on traffic, not find all those signs."

McCray compares the scene to finding 15 yard-sale signs on one pole. "The message," she says, "is lost."

The message isn't lost on Tyler Sewell. He lives at that corner and hates the bumper crop of commerce that blights the front of his house. Sewell finds particular irony that the City has occasionally cited him for failure to trim the turf between the street and sidewalk, the same strip typically smothered in signs.

"The City will fine me if I don't cut the public grass," says Sewell. "So why do I have to submit to those god-awful signs?"

Sewell wants to toss them away, but before he does, he wants to know the law on such freelance placard pruning. More on that later.

Trespass-ville

A particularly flamboyant display welcomes people to the River Run townhouse complex, where as many as a dozen For Sale and For Rent signs vie for attention along busy Rio Road.

"It's just a mess," says Voisinet. "They're all at different angles and colors. If I lived there, I'd be furious, because they really ruin the entrance."

"They're in VDOT's right-of-way," says River Run Property Association manager Ben McCauley. "I don't have the authority to go out there and remove them."

"We're open to suggestions," says McCauley. "If VDOT would give the Association the authority to remove them, I'm sure the board would be more than open to consider that."

What's the law with VDOT?

There are some legal remedies on the books.

According to the Virginia State Code, signs in highway rights of way are a "nuisance" and subject to a civil penalty of $100. The law even presumes that the "person, firm, or corporation being advertised" placed the sign– and shall be "punished accordingly." (Civil libertarians may be comforted to know that the law allows "competent evidence" as a potential escape hatch.)

Larry Davis, Albemarle County attorney, says the county periodically asks VDOT to pick up the signs, but acknowledges that sign offenders are rarely, if ever, punished. "It's difficult to enforce," Davis says, "and time-intensive to prosecute."

"The real estate companies know what they're doing is illegal," says VDOT spokesman Jim Jennings. "But we try to walk a fine line."

Jennings says VDOT will occasionally contact an illegal-sign poster and ask them to remove the signs. If that fails, says Jennings, "We'll just go out there and remove them."

Removing is one thing, but prosecuting is another. That, he explains, is something VDOT has not yet done– and likely will never do.

"It wouldn't be worth the time to go after them," says Jennings, "and we can't afford to be tying up lawyers left and right."

Meanwhile in the City

Unlike the County, the City of Charlottesville governs its own streets. Or does it?

City Code specifically prohibits all non-government signs within the public right-of-way, which often extends past the outer edge of sidewalks, according to the City Attorney, Craig Brown.

But has the City ever waged legal warfare on scofflaws?

"I don't think so," says Brown.

If the City were to issue a citation for a violation, it would be a civil case, Brown says, involving penalties of $100 for the first 10 days the sign is up, $250 for the next 10 days, with a state-mandated cap of $5,000.

A real estate firm handling a million-dollar house sale stands to pocket as much as $60,000 if it earns the full six-percent commission. Might a well-placed sign be worth the risk of fine?

"It might," answers City planning director Jim Tolbert. "Of course, if it's in the right-of-way, we can yank it."

Some citizens are ready to do some yanking of their own.

"It's ridiculous that people think they can just stick those things on city or private property," says Rebecca Treakle. "No one has put one of those signs in my yard," says the Park Street resident, "but the minute they do, I'm pulling it up and throwing it away."

The joy of signs

But what about the joy of signs? According to the National Association of Realtors, they're the top way buyers find houses. Here in Charlottesville, homeowners have been known to pressure agents for maximum signage.

"It just escalates into more and more signs to keep up with the neighbors," says Voisinet, who calls the result a "blight" at intersections.

"It's interesting," says Ray Caddell, the "hardworking nice guy" broker with Century 21, "that in these days of the Internet, when people want to move, they still drive around and look at for-sale signs."

If real estate professionals had their way, Caddell says, they'd stop the madness. They answer, however, to a higher power: motivated sellers, unmoved by the aesthetic arguments for keeping signs off public property.

"I might be able to convince my agents," says Caddell, "but I would never be able to convince my clients, the sellers, that I'm not putting them at a competitive disadvantage."

Caddell found that out when he listed a house in the Woodbrook subdivision without sticking a sign out on Route 29.

"My seller called and raised hell about it," he says. "I personally have had more than one client say, 'How come you don't have a sign out there like the other guy?' "

Complicating the situation, Caddell notes, is the fact that real estate agents aren't the only sign sinners. "What about For Sale By Owner and For Rent signs?" he asks.

The Pen Park jumble proves his point: There, instead of commission-hungry agents, the primary culprits are rentals and FSBOs. The latter– pronouced FIZZ-boze– are houses For Sale By Owner, and those owners don't report to the local realty board– or anyone. And unlike real estate agents, who must be state certified and therefore should know better, the FSBOs may not know anything about limits to guerrilla advertising.

Much the same might be said for the student painters, weight-loss program purveyors, and get-rich-quick shills who blanket medians and other public property with their signs.

The joy of open houses

For many Charlottesvillians, open houses are the highlight of Sundays in springtime, and finding them might be tougher without roadside signs, especially the ones with arrows pointing the way.

"You bet I follow those signs," says open-house fan Adrienne Garo-White. "Going to open houses is a fun thing to do on a rainy afternoon when there's nothing good at the movies. I'll say to my husband, 'Here's a big manor house,' and we'll go there, just seeing how the other half lives."

Most hosts try to make that Sunday search as painless as possible, posting specific "Open Today" signs not only in front of the subject property, but at nearby major cross streets as well. And it might seem that nowhere would such signs be more necessary than in the rabbit warrens of cookie-cutter subdivisions.

Therefore, while many newer subdivisions ban signs on their common property, neighborhoods including family-friendly Forest Lakes and the upscale Glenmore allow open house signs– briefly.

Forest Lakes Community Association president Barbara Fehse explains that the subdivision allows "open today" signs on common land within the subdivision– but only on the actual day of the opening.

"The Realtors are cooperative," says Fehse, although she notes that some have had their signs confiscated by leaving them up after Sunday.

Enforcing the law

In Charlottesville, while some arrow-happy house-sellers may believe they can contract to put their pointers in the yards of willing friends and associates, it may still be illegal under Charlottesville's Code, which prohibits any "off-premises" sign and appears to consider each arrow a separate offense.

"It sounds like we could go a long way toward solving our budget problems simply by enforcing our sign ordinance," says City Councilor Rob Schilling, an associate real estate broker with Bill Porter Realty.

"The law ought to be enforced," says Schilling, "or else it should be taken off the books."

Schilling says a constituent recently asked him why the City seemed to be allowing some house-painting companies to festoon public property with their signs.

"They ought to be fining these companies that are just blasting our city with signs," says Schilling, the lone Republican on City Council. "Or, are we just going around picking up after people?"

Given that these signs are illegal– or at least illegally placed– why are they still out there? Which government agency is responsible for keeping the right-of-way clutter-free?

In the City, the first line of enforcement is the planning department. Director Jim Tolbert says his inspectors will respond to complaints and will– "if they notice them"– confiscate offending signs and call the offender.

"It's not the highest priority," admits Tolbert, "but it's something we look for." But in his five-year reign, he says, the City has not levied any fines for misplaced signs.

"We try to negotiate every zoning issue we can," says Tolbert. The reason, he explains, is that getting a civil penalty requires official notice and a warrant.

Then there's inspection manpower– or womanpower. On April 1, Tolbert lost his zoning administrator with the resignation of Barbara Venerus. Her replacement– Ashley Cooper– is still at UVA earning her master's in planning and can't come on board until May 3.

But not everyone objects to roadside advertising.

"That's how I found my house, so I don't think I can complain," exclaims Kendra Hamilton with a laugh. The president of the Rose Hill Neighborhood Association and a Democratic candidate for City Council, Hamilton says she spotted the sign for her house– located on tucked-away Booker Street– at the corner of Rose Hill Drive and Charlton Avenue.

"How are you supposed to tell there's a house for sale in the area if you don't see the signs?" asks legal assistant Kelsey Simmons. "People who want to live in North Downtown, for example, might drive down High Street to see if there's anything for sale in the area without having to weave up and down all the little side streets."

Simmons has a clutter-reduction proposal: "I suggest they make one generic sign– it doesn't have to be very big, just For Sale with the address smaller underneath." She believes that such a recognizable pointer would cut down on the "noise" from the current sign smorgasbord– which she says is ineffective anyway, "because no one can take in so many at once."

Chatting on his mobile phone with a Hook reporter as he drove past that River Run panoply on Rio Road, ReMax broker Pat Burns came up with the same idea.

"Maybe it'd be cool to have one universal sign– a tastefully done sign– to indicate how many properties in a specific subdivision are available," he says.

Dave Phillips, head of the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors, says CAAR tries to educate its members on the "proper placement" of signs. But ultimately, he says, it's up to the government to enforce laws about postings in the public right of way. "We don't have the authority," he says, "to go around taking down signs."

Powerless 'hood?

One neighborhood that takes an especially dim view of For Sale signs is Mill Creek South on Avon Street Extended. There, even that most traditional tactic– putting a sign in the homeowner's front yard– is verboten.

Marilyn Berard, who sits on the neighborhood's architectural committee, is an enforcer. Berard (wife of a Hook graphic artist) says that the neighborhood is popular with UVA graduate students and medical residents who move after completing their education. Lots of For Sale signs, she explains, could make the annual exodus look like a panic. "Everybody's selling now," says Berard. "It's like a circus."

What is allowed in Mill Creek South are little clear flyer-distribution tubes and boxes. The words "Take One" are okay, but the words "For Sale" are not, says Berard.

And yet for all this strictness, in what must be one of the supreme ironies for such a regulation-driven neighborhood, the Avon street entrance to this subdivision appears to be out of their control.

While Berard patrols the Mill Creek South neighborhood on the lookout for sign scofflaws, she finds herself powerless to control the potentially dangerous situation out front.

Trying to pull onto Avon, Berard says, she often fears for her life because of the forest of signs. "Sometimes," she says, "you can't even see the oncoming traffic."

"We have no say on that," says Berard, "because we think it's VDOT's property."

What happens to vigilantes?

While Mill Creek South and River Run, where $200,000 transactions are at the upper end of the range, are littered with signs on sticks, there's nary a sign, stick, or poster along Route 250 west in front of Farmington, where million-dollar transactions are the norm.

"That's an accurate observation," notes Realtor Pat Burns. "The folks in Farmington wouldn't tolerate that– they'd have their security take them down in two seconds."

Burns's colleague Voisinet thinks that "vigilante" action correlates with the affluence of the neighborhood. He drew this conclusion a few years ago after finding two of his signs uprooted from the edge of Ivy's pricey West Leigh neighborhood.

Ray Caddell has another theory on the scarcity of signs at the edge of

ber-hoods like Farmington.

"When you get in those price ranges," explains Caddell, "people aren't as interested in generating drive-by traffic."

What's a vigilante to do?

So can an outraged citizen toss a sign?

"If something's in your yard, you can take it down," says David Toscano, a lawyer and former City Councilor. "I would think you'd be able to destroy it."

In the past, Toscano admits, "I've taken down political signs in the public right-of-way." Under what authority? "Mere outrage," he deadpans.

But is it legal for a citizen– even a former public servant– to take up the life of a roadway vigilante? "There's probably no action the County would take," says County Attorney Larry Davis. But Davis notes that an offended sign-placer could lodge a civil suit for destruction of property if someone offs the signs– and if the perp can be found.

Washington-based First Amendment attorney Alice Neff Lucan warns any would-be vigilantes that many sign ordinances often turn out to be unconstitutional. Moreover, she says, destruction of private property isn't excused by someone else's transgression. "It's like when a car is parked illegally, can I ram it to get it out of the way? Uh-uh."

So for now, the safest legal recourse for freelance roadside beautifiers is to call the zoning department of the City or County and point out the transgressions.

In the end

For all the zeal of home-sellers to plaster corners with information and come-ons, Voisinet thinks signs aren't so helpful. "The way things move," he says, "you've got to keep up electronically. What I'm for is one nice sign in front of the house– that's a good service."

But Voisinet doubts the sign smorgasbord will disappear any time soon– especially with rentals and FSBOs constituting so many of the illegal postings.

"I don't know the answer," Voisinet says. "But if you're buying a house, you have to ask yourself, 'Do I really want to live in a neighborhood with five or six signs at the entrance all the time?' Because there will almost always be a house for sale."

–With additional reporting by Caitlin King and Rosalind Warfield-Brown


Roger Voisinet says many real estate agents leave their signs up after the sale just to keep their name visible.


"I think they're horrible, and they get more horrible every day."– Ray Caddell


No day passes without these sprouts at River Run.


Marilyn Berard bemoans the proliferation of signs at the entrance of Mill Creek South.


Various real estate companies and one FSBO compete with a historical marker at the corner of Ivy and Owensville Roads.


"We could go a long way toward solving our budget problems simply by endforcing our sign ordinance."–Rob Schilling