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Sign Wars: Va. Showdown Over Street Clutter

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."

But that's all Lauderdale should have done, Frio said. What he did instead was petty larceny, the "taking of the property of another without their permission."

"Imagine the chaos," Frio told the judge, if courts let people such as Lauderdale act like vigilantes just because they claim to do so in good faith. "A neighbor cannot abate the nuisance. The county must abate the nuisance."

If you're the judge in a case like this, you don't have a lot of good options, especially if you decide, as Kelley did, that as a society we want citizens to help keep public property orderly. So the judge found that some of Small's signs were too big and that Lauderdale had no right to remove signs from private land.

The commonwealth's attorney wanted the judge to ban Lauderdale from any further sign removal. But the judge refused.

"I understand you don't like the signs. I don't particularly care for them, either," Kelley told Lauderdale. But for the next five years, the judge added, he can't "take, deface, destroy, alter or touch signs on any property or any property of Scott Small" except for signs on public highways that violate state law. Those, Kelley said, Lauderdale "has the right to remove."

The five-year restraint didn't satisfy the prosecutor or Small, but it was the right decision; as long as Lauderdale follows the law, it's nice to have him saving the taxpayers from having to hire bigger cleanup crews.

Lauderdale is ready to resume his pickups: "I have a full weekend ahead of me."

But this is so not over that at the end of the hearing, Kelley felt compelled to put the next chapter in the case of the Sign Avenger on the court calendar.

The judge asked the clerk: "What's the first Friday in February of 2014?"

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By Marc Fisher |  March 5, 2009; 8:51 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

"as long as Lauderdale follows the law, it's nice to have him saving the taxpayers from having to hire bigger cleanup crews."

But that's the problem, isn't it? He wasn't/isn't following the law, he's just doing whatever he wants.

As a result, you have this rediculousy protracted legal battle that I would wager has already cost the taxpayers more than any cleanup crew ever could.

Posted by: VTDuffman | March 5, 2009 10:01 AM

Do people no longer know how to spell the word "ridiculous?"
Anyway, once those signs are placed on public property, in my opinion, then any citizen has the right to remove them. They are trashy looking, and the people who put them up never seem to remove them. Good riddance!

Posted by: JohnnyReb1 | March 5, 2009 10:38 AM

I read the whole transcript of the recent Judge Kelley decision and it was more of a circus than a viable proceeding. Court across the land have determined that property is abandoned once it is placed in the public right-of-way or on private property without expressed prior permission.
That is what Scott Small does every week. He should be in jail for his persistent illegal behavior. Instead, Small, his attorney and now the Judge prey on a citizen volunteer doing within his rights what is good for his community, riding it of illegal and scenic pollution, trash and litter on a stick. Kudos to Lauderdale. Small should get a law abiding job.

Posted by: scameron39 | March 5, 2009 6:34 PM

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