Help wanted: A volunteer willing to patrol unincorporated Tarrant County and pull up signs placed near roadways in violation of accepted practices and state law. Must be willing to face angry builders as well as shady businesses that sell weight-loss products, pay cash for homes and offer dating services. Apply to the county commissioner.
That's the job ad John Miskulin would like to see. His pet peeve is the clutter of signs placed in rights of way near his neighborhood on West Bonds Ranch Road in unincorporated northern Tarrant County.
"One weekend, I counted over 100 builder signs," he told The Watchdog. "There are also signs for granite, roofing and garage sales. The homes are fairly expensive and people take pride in their property, but lately it has become the 'ghetto in the meadow.'"
Since unlawful roadway signs are a pet peeve of The Watchdog's, too, I checked into Miskulin's complaint.
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First, though, let's differentiate between two types of signs.
Builder signs are professionally made and are important to the community. They help prospective home buyers find what they are looking for, and they can help a neighborhood because lots of unsold homes do not help property values.
In Fort Worth, an ordinance enacted in 2008 that created kiosks where builders can rent sign space has helped eliminate builder sign clutter. But in unincorporated areas of the county, as with many other things, the rules are not so clear.
There are also bandit signs, or "junk on a stick." They are often homemade and offer services like weight-loss products, fitness programs and dozens of others. These signs are an eyesore that cheapens the look of a neighborhood.
In Fort Worth, bandit signs are illegal, but budget cuts mean that fewer staffers are available to pick them up and follow through with prosecution.
Miskulin would like to see his area of the county improve enforcement. He did the right thing by contacting Precinct 3 County Commissioner Gary Fickes, who used to own a sign company and is familiar with accepted practices and the law.
Fickes told me that he contacted the Greater Fort Worth Builders Association to work out a solution. A representative of the group and a leader of the Greater Fort Worth Association of Realtors told me they do their best to educate their members about acceptable practices.
And what is acceptable? Fickes says he approves of builder signs going up late on a Friday and coming down late on a Sunday, because that's when most home buyers do their shopping. That's standard industry practice when there's no specific city ordinance.
But Miskulin says, "The builders started putting them up on Thursdays and taking them down on Mondays."
Fickes, who says he has driven to Miskulin's neighborhood to look at the problem, says that's unacceptable. The signs are put up not by builders but by contractors hired to do the work. Sometimes these contractors don't do what they're supposed to do.
Fickes says he called parties involved and warned them to control their signs because if they don't, "I'm going to start issuing permission for people to remove the signs."
Turns out that a county commissioner can do that in unincorporated areas of a county not ruled by a city sign ordinance. A little-known Texas law states that "a sheriff, constable or other trained volunteer authorized by the commissioners court of a county may confiscate a sign." The county can then sell the sign and place the proceeds in the county treasury. Fickes would need two more votes on the Commissioners Court to gain approval.
Fickes explained to Miskulin that he could take that volunteer job. Miskulin told me he wants to get reimbursed "by the law breaker or the county for my time and efforts." However, the law doesn't provide for that.
Fort Worth offers a good example of sign enforcement. As part of its efforts to improve the quality of life, city officials say, 72,000 signs were pulled up in the past year. The city also has a volunteer group, the Code Rangers, that uses borrowed city vehicles and pulls up bandit signs. This year, the Rangers pulled up close to 1,000.
Others can do it, too, says Fort Worth Code Enforcement Director Brandon Bennett. "Citizens can remove signs placed on their property. They also can pull up signs along the right of way at their own risk, no different than picking up litter and other items that have been illegally placed out."
The city also conducts periodic stings of businesses that place these bandit signs. "If we cannot locate them, we will sign up for the service such as getting our carpets cleaned," Bennett says. "This actually gets us to the company or person benefiting from the illegal advertising, and then we write them a citation."
In the case of an unincorporated area, a county government has "enforcement authority over bandit signs if they're in the right of way of roads," a spokesman for the Texas attorney general's office told me.
Miskulin wants the county to get tougher, more like the city. Fickes doesn't discount the idea of a trained volunteer to help with enforcement under the state law.
"I think the reality is that if somebody did it for a couple of weeks, it would probably get some attention and it might change things," the county commissioner says.
The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.
Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043