Sign of the times

Sign of the times

Eliminating the blight of illegal roadside advertising proves a challenge for Baton Rouge.

In recent years, the city-parish has promised to get tough on people who post illegal signs. But based on the number of such signs around town, you could be forgiven for not knowing that we even have a sign ordinance, much less that a real enforcement effort is under way.

Those little signs along roadways, in medians, and tacked onto telephone poles are, generally speaking, illegal. They do more than block out scenery; a poorly placed sign near an intersection can block drivers' view of an oncoming truck. Even on private property, it's against the law to stake a sign advertising your business in your yard, says East Baton Rouge Public Works Director William Daniel.

“People will put signs almost anywhere,” he says.  “If you drive down Burbank on Election Day, there'll be 10,000 signs in the median.”

Illegal signage may not be the most pressing problem facing Baton Rouge today. But Daniel says it's not an insignificant one, either. Illegal signs are litter, litter is a form of blight, and blight is linked to crime. Eliminating, or at least reducing the prevalence of, illegal signs is one small way to improve the overall quality of life in the parish.

“The mayor absolutely wants to remove the blight in this city,” Daniel says. “That's one of his top priorities.”

Metro Councilwoman Alison Gary mentions two categories of illegal signs: the ones that clutter the public rights of way, and ones that might be legal in some parts of the parish but violate the more stringent rules in the various design overlay districts. In the latter category, she mentions a strip mall at Airline Highway and Bluebonnet Boulevard. The mall's sign was permitted by DPW, even though it was too large according to district standards created by local residents and business owners.

“People put their time into helping to create these guidelines, and everybody comes to an agreement, and it's not enforced,” she says.

About three years ago, Gary says she asked DPW to start getting tougher on people who post illegal signs, and the department agreed to do so. Her performance review is mixed: She hasn't heard about any permitted signs violating the design guidelines in her district recently, but she's still seeing plenty of signs trashing up the medians around town. Enforcement has been a challenge, partly because there's a lack of manpower and partly because the ordinance itself gave violators too much leeway.

The parish Litter Court, established in 2009, was supposed to be part of the renewed effort, although complaints to the court seldom led to actual fines. The council also changed the sign ordinance, so violators no longer must be warned before being fined. Under the old system, the city-parish would give someone 30 days to remove a sign.

“On the 29th day they'd pick it up,” Daniel says, “and on the 31st day they'd put it back down.”

Now, if a sign is illegal, the guilty party is subject to an immediate $125 fine, which ramps up to $250 and $500 for subsequent violations. Daniel says a business owner sometimes will claim not to be responsible for the placement of a sign bearing his business's name, but DPW's practice is to hold those owners accountable.

“Better be careful who you give your signs to,” Daniel warns.

 He hopes the new fining policy will begin to have an impact on the many illegal sign-posting repeat offenders.

Enforcing the sign ordinance is really just part of the larger problem the parish has with code enforcement in general. Only three or four people in his department are tasked with looking for violations, Daniel says, which means DPW largely relies on the public to call in complaints.

The city-parish has implemented a new 311 call-in system, but Daniel says new software to go along with the new system (and the new beefed-up ordinance) still could be 45 to 90 days away.

But he stresses that code enforcement is a priority for Mayor Kip Holden's administration. Just as Project BRAVE, the local version of Operation Ceasefire, will target specific areas for law enforcement, so too will code enforcers start targeting areas with heavy blight.

“This is something that's evolving,” Daniel says. “We want to get aggressive in code enforcement. In the future we're going to step this up.”

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