A bad sign for neighborhoods

Sept. 9, 2011 The Philadelphia Inquirer By J.R. King

On almost every street corner of my "up and coming" South Philly neighborhood, local "entrepreneurs" - the kind who buy houses for cash or run Medicare scams - have decided that the best way to advertise is to post ugly and illegal signs on every utility pole and street sign in sight.

I don't know who started this advertising arms race. Maybe it was one of the companies who will buy my house for cash. Maybe it was the person who wants to commit insurance fraud by buying diabetic test strips (presumably to sell them on some sort of black market).

I do know that the city never enforces the law that makes each sign a $75 offense. Worse, seeing the Free Advertising Pioneer get away with it caused a wave of competitors to litter our corner of the world with these so-called bandit signs.

"Bandit signs stigmatize neighborhoods," says Mary Tracy, executive director of the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight (SCRUB). "What's worse, when laws are not enforced, it sends a message to residents and the renegade sign companies blighting their neighborhoods that the city doesn't care about quality of life."

Residents are so fed up with these bandit signs they are taking matters into their own hands. Christopher Sawyer of Kensington posted a YouTube video after he spent 41/2 hours using a scraper to take down nearly 80 signs on a one-mile stretch of road.

The real estate blog NakedPhilly.com is planning to run a contest to award a gift certificate for the person who takes down the most signs. Margaret Phillipi of the Parkwood Civic Association may have already won. She has taken down more than 4,000 signs by her own count.

The city has given many different reasons to explain its failure to enforce the ban.

Back in 2007, the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) said that it had "neither the personnel nor the proper equipment to strictly enforce the code" despite the fact that it could collect at least $90,000 in fines.

Last year, Maureen Blaney, manager of L&I's business compliance unit, told philly.com that the problem was the way the law is structured. If the city issues a $75 fine for each illegal sign, Blaney said, it has to wait for the owners to take the signs down themselves because the city cannot take them down without a court order.

Recently, L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy disagreed and said the city can both take down the signs and collect the full $75 fine. "We take down the signs ourselves," Kennedy said.

L&I's new approach, according to Kennedy, is to combine resources with the Streets Department which has "better tools" and "provides similar functions on city sidewalks." The program, however, is "days, possibly weeks, old."

Kennedy would not say whether the combined forces of L&I and the Streets Department had the resources to strictly enforce the code, instead saying they are "working diligently to address the problem."

If the city wants bandit signs taken down, it will have to come up with creative solutions. For instance, it could hire individuals or community groups to take pictures of the signs and remove them. Students could make money while improving their communities.

A more radical solution would be for City Council to empower community groups to bring offenders to court themselves. Groups like SCRUB could sue the businesses for $75 per sign and use the money to fund its other beautification programs.

This type of code enforcement is unprecedented; in California, the Americans with Disabilities Act lets individuals bring suit against businesses that do not have the proper ramps and bathrooms. This allows individuals and courts to enforce the code while the state saves money by not having to hire inspectors.

It only takes a few seconds for someone with a digital camera and a crowbar to document the offense and remove it. And it shouldn't be hard to take offenders to court. Their contact information is right there on the sign. And if they have enough money to buy my house for cash, they have enough money to pay a fine.

J.R. King is an attorney in the Point Breeze section of Philadelphia and the author of PhillyZoning.com, an online guide to Philadelphia zoning law.