End the blight of temporary signs
in the public right-of-way
What is the problem with temporary signs in the public right-of-way?
Public rights-of-way are the strips of land between city streets and private property. In the City of Salem this land belongs to the City (all of us), and the Salem Revised Code includes laws that determine what can and cannot happen on this public property.
SRC 900.100 states that "no sign shall be erected over or within the public right-of-way unless the placement of the sign is first approved by the governmental unit having jurisdiction over the right-of-way." Since the City is not in the practice of approving signs in the right-of-way, the hundreds of signs you see in rights-of-way on any given day in Salem are illegal. A related problem are signs attached to fences, trees, shrubbery or utility poles that are also illegal (SRC 900.160).
Nearly all of these are temporary signs and not permanent signs. They are usually small, inexpensive signs advertising nearby small businesses or yard sales. However, there are some larger enterprises like Kelly's Home Center, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce (Showbiz), and even Marion County (Marion County Fair) that are serial offenders. In the 60 days before primary and general elections, it is common for political campaigns to violate the law and place dozens of candidate or issue signs in the public right-of-way.
Why is this a problem?
Hundreds of signs in the public rights-of-way in Salem are a form of visual pollution that degrades our city and sends a message to visitors and people who might like to relocate here that we don't care about our streetscapes. These illegal signs (along with an overabundance of legal signs allowed by Salem's too-permissive sign ordinances) make streets like Lancaster, Liberty, Commercial and Market Street look tacky and trashy. Since these are major arterials, these streets leave a terrible impression that scenic parts of our city, like our historic downtown or the Capitol Mall area, cannot erase.
What causes this problem?
We have hundreds of illegal signs in public rights-of-way in Salem because our City does not enforce SRC 900.100. Simple as that. The reason we see more and more signs in the right-of-way is because when people see so many signs out there, they think it must be okay. Most signs are probably placed in the right-of-way out of ignorance, not out of maliciousness.
Brady Rogers is in charge of Code Enforcement at the City of Salem. He wrote to a Salem Community Vision Steering Committee member: "If I still had the staff I would have someone out collecting the [signs] in violation as I type this."
What can be done about it?
When Brady Rogers was asked what a private citizen could do about illegal signs in the right-of-way he said this:
If they really wanted to, a person could remove signs from phone poles and light posts adjacent to streets. Signs in the ground are a little trickier. Remember they can only be removed from public right-of-way. Taking a sign off of private property is theft. It is not always apparent where the true public right-of-way ends and private property begins. While sidewalk location is a good indicator, it is not always on public right-of-way.
Another code enforcement staff person suggested that a good rule of thumb is to look for utility poles. Any sign that extends between the outer edge of a utility pole (farthest from the street) and the street is almost certainly in the public right-of-way. These signs can be removed and left on the ground by concerned citizens. While this might cause a litter problem, it might also send a message to individuals, businesses and campaigns that placing their signs illegally is a bad idea, since no one will see a sign on the ground. Maybe if it happens enough they will get the message.
Salem Community Vision is going to think about other ways that we can fight back to stop illegal signs in the public right-of-way. Since it is unlikely that we will be able to hire more code enforcement staff anytime soon, maybe the City could simply deputize other city staff working on our streets (e.g., public works, police, firefighters) to remove illegal signs when they encounter them in their daily routines. Another idea might be a volunteer corps of trained sign code enforcers to remove offending signs.
Until we begin to send a strong message to illegal sign offenders that "you can't mess with Salem" we will continue to see more and more of this blight in our otherwise beautiful city.