One of Steve Hawkins’ hobbies is road cycling. When the Cascade Park resident is on his bicycle, he sees roadside signs advertising painting, weight loss and get-rich-quick schemes.
As a First Amendment advocate, Hawkins is OK with the temporary signs for political candidates. He’s not so accepting of signs for roofing and other commercial services.
“These type of signs make the city look littered and trashy,” he said, adding that it doesn’t seem like the city enforces its own code.
Hawkins submitted the following question on The Columbian’s Clark Asks feature, where readers ask questions and vote on which one should be covered in a story: “On rights of way throughout the city, there are signs advertising things like roofing, gutter cleaning, painting, etc. Aren’t these against code?”
The simple answer is yes, both in Vancouver and unincorporated Clark County.
“Most of these temporary signs in the right of way are illegal,” said Kevin Pridemore, code enforcement lead worker for Clark County Community Development.
Sign rules can be a tangled web of differing regulations that, combined with limited enforcement, don’t seem to make much sense to residents befuddled or angered by the visual clutter.
Vancouver has slightly looser rules than the county. In 2004, the city council, at the urging of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and the Clark County Association of Realtors, tweaked its sign code.
For the past 15 years, Vancouver has allowed temporary off-site signs directing customers, such as homebuyers searching for an open house. They must be A-frame or sandwich-board signs and can be used only during an actual event within a specified period: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Most other roadside commercial signs, whether they are stapled to utility poles or driven into the ground, are illegal. Those using Vancouver’s roadsides as a convenient place to advertise can face fines of up to $250 per sign.
Eighty-four percent of Clark County residents live inside Vancouver or unincorporated Clark County and fall under sign rules for those two jurisdictions.
With limited code enforcement officers responsible for a variety of cases — overgrown vegetation, barking dogs, junk vehicles and assorted debris, to name a few — neither has much time to staff a roving sign patrol.
“The city does proactively enforce code-related issues, as time and workloads permit,” Jason Nortz, Vancouver development review division manager, wrote in an email. “The city of Vancouver receives roughly 10,000 code complaints a year and has four full-time code compliance officers.”
Clark County has even fewer: a lead worker, two code enforcement officers and a part-time office assistant.
“I am working on 500 cases by myself,” Pridemore said.
Political signs currently dotting the landscape were the subject of a Nov. 9, 2018, Clark Asks story. Detailed information about political signs is available on the county’s website: tinyurl.com/Clark-political-signs.
Both the county and city say roadside signs are not their biggest code compliance issue. Both programs are largely complaint-driven, meaning each agency responds after receiving one or more complaints.
“If we get a complaint on signs, we will go out and pull them,” Pridemore said.
County code enforcement doesn’t get a lot of complaints about signs, he said.
“And it’s also a low priority,” he said. “If I have to prioritize work for our officers to do, this goes to the bottom.”
So far this year, Clark County has received 20 complaints about temporary roadside signs, Pridemore said. This summer, the county issued nine citations for improperly placed real estate signs in the area north of the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds, he said.
Once the county received a complaint, it collected the signs and sent warning letters to the companies that placed them, Pridemore said. When some signs reappeared, the county issued citations and $100 fines per sign. One citation covered 13 signs and totaled $1,300, which the company paid.
“They don’t even call me; they just pay them,” Pridemore said, adding that the citations might be seen as “a cost of doing business.”
Pridemore said the county has not done outreach with the Clark County Association of Realtors about voluntary compliance.
“To be honest, we really don’t have that much time,” he said. “We are pretty jammed up with everything we take in so outreach is not something we are doing a heck of a lot about.”
Nortz said the city typically doesn’t issue citations.
“The city makes every attempt to enforce its sign regulations through education and outreach first,” he said.
Hawkins said he repeatedly sees yellow-and-black signs advertising roofing, windows and siding. He was so peeved that he checked the company’s license number, which is printed on the signs, and traced it to Evergreen Renovations & Roofing of Beaverton, Ore.
“I don’t understand why a reputable business thinks it’s OK to litter the landscape,” Hawkins said. “What is their thought, what is their justification, for why they think that’s OK?”
Jim Davis, marketing director for Evergreen Renovations & Roofing, was surprised when told his company’s signs violated Vancouver code.
“Wow, we didn’t know they were illegally placed,” he said. “I certainly apologize if things got done illegally.”
Davis said he will talk with the person who produces and places the signs for the company and will personally come up to Vancouver to retrieve signs.
“We want to be on the up and up, for sure,” he said.
Report, don’t remove
Even when residents spot what they believe to be an illegally placed sign, they should report it to their local government, not take matters into their own hands.
“That could be considered theft, from what I understand,” Pridemore said. “They do want to report them. We would come out and do what we do. But they should not remove them.”
Nortz agreed residents should not take down signs, in part because of safety considerations for removing signs along traffic.
“Because sign codes can be very complicated and the rules vary within neighboring jurisdictions, it is recommended that residents contact the city to remove a sign,” he wrote in his email.
Although roadside signs might seem to be little more than litter, they do reflect an economy churning forward.
“During the recession,” Pridemore said, “I have to admit that we had next to no sign complaints.”
Most of us don’t find a roofer while waiting for the traffic signal to turn green, but the signs must have some limited effectiveness.
If not, they would have faded from the urban landscape long ago.