Come spring, Bill Lewis often finds himself plucking stake signs from the medians and roadsides in Milton as if they were weeds.
Sometimes Lewis, code enforcer for the town, fills the back of his truck with what he’s pulled from the ground. Sometimes he can fill a dumpster. But like real weeds, they always come back over the course of a couple weeks.
“I have to go out on a regular basis,” he said Thursday after pulling up a fresh batch. “I’ve pulled 20 or 30 signs from an intersection at one time.”
The signs always vary in content. Many of them are simple advertisements — pizza joints, Pop Warner football tryouts, landscaping businesses.
Others take up causes, like signs against the NY SAFE Act, protesting the Common Core or, more recently, opposing an expansion at the Saratoga County Airport. And then there are the candidate signs that start sprouting up as election season inches closer.
They do, however, share one thing in common: They’re all illegally placed in the town’s right-of-way. While they may seem innocuous, the signs can cause issues for the town and can even pose a hazard.
Deposited and forgotten, the signs sometimes end up in town storm drains or culverts, where they can wreck havoc. An errant sign clogging a drain can mean thousands of dollars of repairs for town highway crews after a heavy storm.
On roadsides, they can distract motorists. Lewis, who also serves as assistant chief of the Ballston Spa Fire Department, responded to a car accident this month where a motorist gawking at an illegally placed garage sale sign rear-ended another vehicle.
“It’s a chronic problem for us in the town of Milton,” he said.
Milton’s sign problem isn’t unique either. Stake signs seem to have a constant roadside presence these days throughout the Capital Region and especially at high-traffic intersections.
Once a tool used largely during election season, the stake sign has become an inexpensive and effective method of advertising for businesses, events or causes. They can be purchased cheaply, produced easily and placed almost anywhere they’ll be spotted by passing motorists.
“It’s getting worse,” said Debora Bradt, zoning code enforcement officer for the town of Ballston. “They’re easy to produce, and there seems to be a lot more issues out there now.”.
Many of the prime locations are in areas that fall within a public right-of-way. On Saratoga County-maintained roads, for instance, the right-of-way generally extends roughly 15 feet from the fog line on the road.
“That’s usually 10 feet from the edge of the pavement,” said Keith Manz, the county’s Public Works commissioner.
Signs are outright prohibited in the right-of-way of state roads, said Bryan Viggiani, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. Of course, determining where that prohibited area begins and ends is a not always easy.
“It’s an age-old question and it does vary,” he said.
State road crews usually only focus on removing the signs obstructing roadside mowing, causing visibility issues or posing some kind of hazard. Otherwise, signs are generally left in place to run their course, whether it be for en election or event.
Increasingly, the signs don’t have a specific expiration date, such as an election, after which the owner will likely collect them. Often times, these are issue-oriented signs that remain relevant for months at a clip.
Signs decrying or supporting a proposal for a 137,000-square-foot Walmart store in Ballston have choked the roadside of Route 50 for more than a month. The proposal to build the store is only in the early stages of what could be a lengthy and extensive environmental review, meaning the town and neighboring village of Ballston Spa could be contending with the signs well into the fall.
“Some of these issue-oriented signs make it tricky,” Viggiani said. “That’s because some of them don’t really have an end date.”
The proliferation of signs can be traced back to advances in printing and screening that has opened a new market for small businesses and community causes. During the 1990s, printing stake signs took time and money and often required someone to order hundreds at a time.
Signs were printed on outdoor-grade material with UV resistance. They were either cut from vinyl or screen-printed — a process that wasn’t conducive to producing a handful at a time.
“Fifteen years ago, printing a small number of signs really wasn’t an option,” said Eric Sommer of Infamous Signs & Graphics, a print shop in Colonie.
But with the advent of digital printing, stake signs became easy to produce and inexpensive. Today, businesses or individuals can purchase a custom sign for as little as $20, or a batch of 50 or more for around $5 a piece.
The lower prices mean print shops see more small orders come in. Though places like Infamous are still busy with large orders during campaign season, they’re much more likely to see small orders trickle in from businesses and organizations over the course of the year.
Stake signs are also an easy way to maximize advertising dollars, especially for small businesses just starting out. Signs can be deployed illegally on the cheap and may remain in place for weeks or even months before being seized by a code enforcer.
Signs can also give a boost to those businesses winding down. In Malta, Furniture Warehouse deployed stake signs around the area to advertise its going-out-of-business sale, which started in March and is just now winding down.
Owner Tom Caro said they were part of an overall advertising package, which also included radio and television spots, so he has no way of knowing what worked best. But his gut feeling is that the signs helped guide traffic to his store, which in turn helped him liquidate his inventory.
“My suspicion is they were highly effective,” he said.
The signs did bring him some heat. Caro said he got a some irate calls from individuals and municipalities alike.
“I understand,” he said. “People get sick and tired of those things.”