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No fewer than 311 small plastic red, white and blue American flags and five larger cloth star-spangled banners flap and flutter in the breeze over an Upper Marlboro lot full of new Chevrolets, Geos, Isuzus and AMC Jeep Eagles.

Is that a display of patriotism protected by the Bill of Rights? Or does the proliferation of American flags represent crass commercialism and roadscape clutter that should be banned by zoning rules and regulations?

David Goldsmith, a Prince George's County property standards inspector who also heads a county "development quality" task force, says it's the latter. He told the County Council that such displays, despite the patriotic motif, may be little more than subversive actions intended to evade zoning laws.

"Pennants, pinwheels and similar circus- or carnival-type attractions which are visible from a street or a residential property" are illegal under the county's sign ordinance, Goldsmith said. So far, American flags are not.

"We've cited a number of places with pennants, and they've replaced them with American flags," Goldsmith said. "They're stringing them with impunity."

The council's reaction to Goldsmith's suggestion of a flag crackdown was volcanic.

"Booo," said Vice Chairman Frank P. Casula.

"It won't fly," added member Richard J. Castaldi. "Everyone should have the right to fly the American flag, as many as people want."

Chairman Jo Ann T. Bell was more restrained, noting "a difference between flying it for patriotic reasons, as opposed to for advertising."

Old Glory waves fiercely -- and commercially -- along such major county arteries as Routes 1 (Baltimore Avenue) and 450 (Annapolis Road). The flag flies above and alongside the banners of McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Sunoco, and sometimes it flies alongside the Maryland state flag.

These are considered acceptable uses of the flag, Goldsmith said. But at car dealerships, American flags proliferate in ways considered by some to be primarily attention-getting and dangerously distracting to drivers.

At KTK Chrysler Plymouth on Annapolis Road in New Carrollton, the flags are everywhere -- 80 of them fringing a circus-like tent, 171 strung along the highway and 20 more on car antennas. KTK administrative assistant Chris Roggia said the dealer was fined $50 more than a year ago for having balloons.

Flags, however, are another story, he said. "Chrysler's American, born in America. That was the whole advertising campaign in 1987," he said. "We have Mitsubishi, but Chrysler is basically an American company. You see the flag, you think of America. You think of the commercial."

The 271 U.S. flags have been waving at KTK since August, when the dealer took down the forbidden red, white and blue pennants.

At nearby Rosenthal Toyota, pairs of American flags alternate with pairs of "Used Car" banners, for a total of 36 flags.

"I guess the idea is patriotism and business," sales manager Philip Marshall said. "It's attractive. Something people notice."

At Hugh Lowe's lot in Upper Marlboro, flags fly year-round. Here, the Norman Rockwellian "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" slogan of a few years back has given way. "They're in a heartbeat mode" now, Lowe said.

So, American flags also fly inside the showroom and all company cars are red, white or blue. "I like flags," Lowe said. "I buy 'em by the box. I don't know if they pull us in any business. I guess they're attention-getters. We put them up because we like them and want to display them.

But the matter is far from settled. "Everyone knows it's a sensitive issue," said Goldsmith, who said the flag issue is just one of several the task force is studying under its 1987 mandate from the County Council. The group is also looking at billboards. Some members favor eliminating them entirely," Goldsmith said. "It could be a real hot potato."