2009-05-20 / Front Page

Targeting the violators

By Greg Pearson
STAFF WRITER

Lisa Billings/Chesterfield Observer Bob Olsen has made it his business to report illegal signs in front of businesses, nonprofits and churches in the Midlothian Turnpike area.
Bob Olsen is on a mission - to cut down on the number of illegal banners, portable signs and electronic message signs on Midlothian Turnpike and nearby roads. He doesn't care if the violators are churches, nonprofits or businesses.

"I've been accused of targeting churches and other nonprofits," he says in a rather manner-of-fact way, "but I don't. I target the violators."

In just a few months he says he's filed more than 100 complaints for Chesterfield's Zoning Department to investigate. Those complaints were against churches - Bethlehem Baptist and Episcopal Church of the Redeemer - and businesses - Best Western, Warrior Martial Arts, Sheehy Ford and Arby's - to name a few. To file so many complaints, you have to be committed. He is.

His mission began earlier this year when he sat in on an Electronic Message Center Sign Committee meeting and heard a sign company representative say the public wasn't concerned about violations of permits because few complaints were being registered.

"Enforcement of all zoning is complaint based," he learned. "It's reactive, not proactive. I thought, 'You want complaints, I'll give you complaints.'"

He went to the County Attorney's Office section of www.chesterfield. gov and started studying the ordinances for electronic signs, portable signs and banners. Filing legitimate complaints isn't easy, but Olsen's background makes it easier for him. For 12 years he was chair of the Building Code Appeals Board and also chaired the committee that studied shrink-swell soils more than 15 years ago. His job as the vice president of operations and procurement for RLC Technologies enables him to read and understand arcane documents. His company, after all, builds machinery for cleaning up oil contaminations worldwide.

"The zoning staff does the best job it can, but they don't have the power to issue summons," explains Olsen. "So they go back again and again to violators almost pleading with them. Any of them can legally request a banner up to 60 days a year. There's no cost, and all you have to do is abide by the rules."

"But some violators - like car dealers - beat the system by flying illegal banners, flags and inflatable balloons but take them down after the weekends so county staff won't see them," he continues. "It becomes a game of 'catch me if you can.'"

It's not quite that bad, according to Compliance Supervisor Ted Barclay. "We try to educate more than enforce," Barclay says. "Rarely do we have a problem with compliance after advising them."

Through the county attorney, Chesterfield can seek a fine of $10-$1,000 per violation in court, but that hardly ever happens. "We're in it for the compliance, not the money," Barclay says.

Six of his eight investigators deal with sign violations, but they also monitor weeds, unlicensed vehicles, shed setbacks and perhaps another 40 areas of violations. Because those who file complaints remain anonymous and can use an online complaint form, his department is busy.

And there's a lot more complaints being filed this year, with Olsen being reportedly the most prolific. A couple of citizens in the Chester area have become more active, which concerns attorney Carrie Coyner. Last month, she asked the county board of supervisors to study the ordinances to see if they could be more flexible.

"I have road frontage on Route 10," she says. "So why can't I put up a banner for my church, which isn't on a heavily traveled road, instead of one for my law firm? Why does the message matter?"

She agrees there should be limits on the number, size and length of time for banners.

Planning Director Kirk Turner told the supervisors his department would look into it.

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