Va. Judge Was Right to Step On The Sign Avenger's Cape

Thursday, March 5, 2009; Page B01

The last time they tangled in court, Robert Lauderdale swore he'd be back soon enough, protecting Arlington from the ugly little advertising signs that Scott Small and others plant along the median strips. For his part, Small promised to catch his tormentor again. "Next time, he'll go to jail," he vowed.

That was seven years ago. True to their words, both men have pursued their battle, and true to the path of most such confrontations, this one appears to be everlasting.

Small makes his living posting signs that lead potential customers to houses for sale. Lauderdale chose as his life's hobby removing those signs from along Lee Highway and other thoroughfares. If Lauderdale is successful, Small doesn't feed his family. If Small prevails, Lauderdale needs to find himself some other passion in life.

In 2001, Arlington County took Lauderdale to court; a judge banned him from ripping down Small's signs for two years and made him pay $5,000 in restitution to the sign man.

Lauderdale complied -- for exactly two years. Whereupon he resumed his crusade. Again, he was hauled into court; again, he was banned, this time for a year.

No ban was in effect when Lauderdale swept up a load of Small's signs in the early morning of last March 25. When Small called the Arlington police, they found his signs -- in Lauderdale's car.

Back in court again this winter, Lauderdale says he was doing the people's business. After all, he is an official sign-remover, a member of Adopt-A-Highway, the state-sanctioned group that encourages citizens to keep Virginia byways clean. Lauderdale contends that Small had put some real estate signs up for longer than the law allows and posted others where they're not allowed.

Small "has a wife, he has a kid, this is his means of supporting his family," Frank Frio, the prosecutor in the case, told Arlington General District Court Judge Thomas Kelley Jr., according to the trial transcript.

Lauderdale's attorney, Thomas O'Neill, countered that his client "actually provided a public service," eliminating visual pollution and "making Arlington a better place to look at."

Lauderdale, a 56-year-old computer expert at a secretive Department of Defense agency, says he devotes a chunk of his weekends to sweeping up signs because "I've lived in this charming small town of 204,000 people for 40 years and when I saw a plastic real estate directional sign in Four Mile Run, in my creek, I thought, 'How could I make this go away?' "

Many neighbors appreciate his work; Lauderdale has won awards from civic groups. Some folks, inspired by his example, have joined in, taking up signs and delivering them to the state Transportation Department.

But Lauderdale doesn't always settle for a simple cleanup. Sometimes he puts bags over the signs, or knocks them down, or defaces them with spray paint, Frio told the judge. Yet even the prosecutor had to admit that Lauderdale got Arlington to enforce its sign laws. "It's true," Frio said. "The county was not acting. Mr. Lauderdale has done a good job of moving the county in that direction."

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