All the Signs Point Toward Conflict

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, April 14, 2002

Scott Small's signs were vanishing by the hundreds, even thousands, from the streets where he'd planted them. Small's livelihood -- he makes and posts those little signs that show the way to new housing developments -- was at stake. His clients weren't keen on paying for signs that weren't there.

So, one Saturday at 2 a.m. in Arlington, Small launched a stakeout. Four hours later, he caught Robert Lauderdale in the act, called police and watched with some satisfaction as Lauderdale, a proud vigilante in an informal network of "street sharks," was cuffed and arrested.

But that incident last year was hardly the end of it. Lauderdale, a 49-year-old computer specialist for a District nonprofit group, continued what he calls Operation Clean Sweep, his pre-dawn raids on those "Work at Home," "Lose Weight Now" and real estate signs that sprinkle the suburban landscape.

"This is a hobby for me," Lauderdale says. "Some people collect toy trains. I like to clean up my part of the world."

Small, meanwhile, has devoted 12 of his 33 years to putting up signs, 500 to 1,000 a week, and he is determined not to let a lone guerrilla sabotage his business. "I put my signs up legally. I know when and where I'm allowed to post them. What this is about is a man running around stealing property. That's the bottom line."

In the only conversation they ever had, at a roadside confrontation one dawn, Small asked his tormentor, "Don't you have anything better to do? Get a life." Lauderdale replied, "It's a hobby. Everyone should have a hobby."

Small filed a complaint against Lauderdale, and a judge in Arlington, while sympathetic to the vigilante's cause, ruled that removing the signs was taking someone else's property. Lauderdale agreed to pay Small $2,500 in restitution and keep his mitts off Small's signs for two years.

Small also went after Lauderdale in Fairfax, where a court ruled similarly. So Lauderdale is out $5,000 -- not even half of what Small says he's lost.

"This guy sees me as the large developer, but I'm not the builder, I'm a subcontractor, one of the smallest players," Small says. "He can argue that the aesthetic value goes down from signs, but look at the other side: Every house that sells adds to the tax base. And when you sell your home, don't you want signs up so people can find your house? Don't be hypocritical."

Lauderdale sees himself in a fight against the plague of popsicle-stick signs cluttering the byways. His goal: "total removal."

"I used to go out every weekend, crack of dawn," he says. "I'd put hundreds of signs into the recycling bin. You don't need 58 signs to give directions to people buying $700,000 homes."

Lauderdale belongs to a nationwide vanguard of crusaders who rid the intersections of suburbia of "street spam," the "New Homes!" and "Make $$$ In Your Spare Time" signs that spread like ivy across the edge of development.

These vigilantes are making some headway in winning legal recognition for their work. In Fairfax, for example, a county task force has recommended deputizing residents to remove illegal signs. In Sioux Falls, S.D., the mayor offered Scouts a 50-cent bounty on each sign captured.

Each jurisdiction has its own rules about signs. Arlington, as you'd expect, is tough, requiring real estate signs to be removed each Sunday night. Lauderdale has catalogued an epidemic of abuses -- signs illegally placed on state land, such as median strips. But many infestations of signs are perfectly legal, and that's where Small believes that Lauderdale and his ilk have stepped way over the line.

"Hey, I grew up here. I know what it used to look like," Small says. "I can't help it that houses are so close, you can watch your neighbor eating breakfast. The zoning laws allow that. Unless you're going to outlaw everything -- lost dog signs, yard sale signs -- what I'm doing is legal. Instead of yakking at me, build new roads."

Both parties agree the sign shark is obeying the court orders. But come the end of the two years, watch out. "I'm not going to be stopped by this," Lauderdale says.

"Let it go," Small pleads. "Get a life."

Oh, and if Lauderdale gets back into the raid game, as seems likely, Small makes this promise: "I'll catch him again, and next time, he'll go to jail."

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com


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