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Residential Real Estate

City Battling With Illegal 1-800-SELLNOW Sign Posting

SBJ Staff

11/23/2009 - Savannah and Chatham County code enforcers think they may be seeing a holiday truce in the war they’ve been waging against a stealthy real estate operator who nails signs to trees and utility poles in the wee hours of the night.

The illegal signs and the resulting visual blight have mostly disappeared. But for how long, code enforcement officials wonder.

Randolf Scott, city of Savannah zoning administrator, is hoping the city’s attention to taking down the signs as quickly as it can has made the posting too expensive. That’s what occurred a couple years ago along Montgomery Crossroad, Scott said.

“We hit them so hard it stopped,” he said. “The sign replacements go expensive,” Scott added, noting they are made of corrugated plastic.

Scott says his department has been trying to serve a code violation citation to an individual identified as Ryan Johnson and who is confirmed as the license holder for the Chatham County territory of 1-800-SELLNOW. Johnson has not been at the address listed on the citation to acknowledge receipt of the notice, according to Scott.

”We haven’t had good service on him yet,” he said.

That’s about to change, Scott said. He’s tired of the cat-and-mouse and is ready to turn the service task over to police, he said.

“Once police locate him and bring him in, we’ll have our day in court.”

The Ryan Johnson whose telephone number is listed on city code enforcement records insisted in a phone interview last week he is not the sign poster and is not in the business of buying homes from distressed homeowners. Further, he says he has no ties to the Delray Beach, Fla., company that lists him as the Chatham County license holder for 1-800-SELLNOW.

“I run a small home contracting business,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, code inspectors are happy to be getting a break from the sign wars.

For a while, escalation seemed to be the name of the game, said Scott, the zoning official.

The 1-800-SELLNOW signs first appeared in neighborhoods on utility poles at eye level and were tacked in. Enforcement officers pulled them down with relative ease. But not long after, the signs went farther up the poles and trees. And they became a lot harder to take down, Scott said.

“They were putting them way up in the air. And took to doing it in the middle of the night, in the wee hours of the morning.”

Next the poster began nailing them into the poles, then he began screwing them in. The most recent ones were bolted in, Scott said.

Greg Anderson, director of the Chatham County Building and Public Safety Department, said his enforcement crews have been on the lookout for the signs but have not seen them. “We will continue to inspect for illegally posted signs and take the appropriate action,” Anderson said in an e-mail last week.

Truce or no truce, some Savannah officials want to press forward in the war against the signs.

Mayor Otis Johnson said at a town meeting in late October that he wants to get the message out on the city’s public access TV channel and to alert the Better Business Bureau that the operator of 1-800-SELLNOW is a lawbreaker. “They should be prosecuted if they don’t desist,” Johnson said.

Alderman Tony Thomas said the signs have been a blight in Windsor Forest and elsewhere in his District 6. They seem to be targeted toward neighborhoods with a high number of home foreclosures, he said.

The 1-800-SELLNOW Web site indicates Thomas is correct.
Here is the pitch the site makes:

“In this difficult market, there are many options when it comes to selling your home. Cash buyers, Taking over payments, Lease-Option, Negotiating Short-Sales, and Aggressive Listings are just a few options that our representatives can provide. We are here to help you figure out what the best solution is for your needs.”

Thomas said he is eager to see prosecution of the offenders but not through the city’s Recorders Court.

The Livability Court is the best venue, he said, noting the administrative action can move more swiftly.

Thomas also wants to exact a higher price for the offense. “We’re not going to change these peoples’ behavior unless we slap them in the wallet,” he said.

Some of the signs are getting nailed and screwed into oak trees the city has planted as part of its canopy restoration effort. The nailing can kill the trees, he said, and for this the offender should have to pay the cost of tree replacement.

Also in considering the penalty, Thomas said, authorities must weigh the danger the sign posters have put city works in by forcing them to remove signs from high elevations.

Thomas said he got tipped to the lucrative nature of the illegal posting through a phone call from an offender inquiring about advertising on a Chatham County Transit buses, for which Thomas sells advertising. After hearing the CAT rates, the caller said he could buy 100 signs and post them illegally in the middle of the night for the price of a couple of signs on the sides of a CAT bus, according to Thomas.

“He is telling me how the system works,” complete with the after-midnight clandestine sign postings, Thomas said. “I’m absorbing all this.”

He said he thinks he knows who the culprit is.

For now, he added, “I just hope the guy who says he didn’t do didn’t do it. Then the sign fairy will go back out and take down the signs.”
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