Rush-hour traffic whizzes by as the Ford Escape creeps along Fourth Street N.
"I drive slowly,'' Linda Phillips says, "because I'm a-lookin'."
Sure enough, her eyes quickly focus on a handwritten sign offering a house for sale: "Shore Acres 3/2 $79K.'' But the sign is on private property, so Phillips goes a few blocks more, turns onto a side street.
There, high on a utility pole, is a red and white sign: "Rent Nice 1 Bed Apt.'' And just down the street, another sign, also well above Phillips' head: "Foreclosure. Keep Your Home.''
"They're putting them up so tall,'' she says, "because they probably know I'm a short person.''
Phillips is a code investigator for St. Petersburg, which has seen a profusion of illegal advertising signs as the economy gasps along. For little more than the cost of poster board, someone trying to unload a house or sell bargain health insurance can reach hundreds of potential customers.
Clearwater and Tampa have the same problem.
"I see an abundance of signs in the New Tampa area, along Fowler, Bruce B. Downs, and usually at all the intersections and (interstate) entrance and exit ramps,'' says Susan Wenrick, a supervisor in Tampa's code enforcement department. "I guess people think that while someone's at a light they might as well read.''
Posting a sign on a public right of way in Tampa is a violation of city code and carries a $75 fine. But the city has temporarily stopped issuing citations pending adoption of a new ordinance. Which may be why Wenrick is always busy.
"I feel I've cleared the way for other businesses to come and put theirs up,'' she says. "It drives me absolutely crazy.''
In Clearwater, signs are generally confiscated as soon as they're spotted; violators face a $138 fine.
Although the biggest glut of signs came just before this year's Super Bowl in Tampa, "there's never a time when we don't have to deal with right-of-way signs, which are not only a violation of city code but also a violation of state traffic laws,'' says Dan Bates, Clearwater's development services manager. "They create a visual obstruction.''
In St. Petersburg, they're called "snipe signs'' because they seemingly come out of nowhere. So many were despoiling the landscape by 2008 that neighborhood groups began pressing the city's code compliance department to do something about them.
In October, Phillips became the Tampa Bay area's first snipe-sign sleuth — an investigator whose sole job is tracking down owners of illegal commercial signs and building cases against them. Fines start at $125 per sign per location and go up to $500 for repeat offenders.
"If we just pull 'em and toss 'em,'' she says, "they'll just keep putting them back out.''
Two or three days a week, Phillips sets out early in a city-owned SUV with a digital camera and laptop computer. Thanks to the city's crackdown, she finds far fewer illegal signs along main drags like Fourth Street N. But on this Wednesday morning, she spots several signs one block over on Third Street.
The first one advertises an apartment for rent. Phillips plugs the phone number into her laptop and scores a hit.
"This is one I've given notice to. When I find a sign and don't find it in the database, we do give a courtesy warning. This person has obviously been warned.''
As evidence, Phillips takes photos of the sign in place. Then, because the sign is several feet over her head, she gets out a long pole.
"It's my arm extender,'' Phillips says, deftly dislodging the sign. She wipes it off, writes the address on it and sticks it in the back of the SUV.
Phillips also confiscates the foreclosure sign, then heads to 54th Avenue N. At the intersection with 16th Street is a handwritten ad for a three-bedroom house: "Trustee Ordered Sale, $169k.''
"Love it!'' Phillips exclaims. "It's got an extension number. Chances are it's a business and we'll find that person easier.''
But on the opposite corner she spies a familiar phone number, this time on a sign for "low-cost stucco.'' The same number has appeared on signs for lawn services, rentals and "We buy junk.''
"I did speak to him and I can find the person, but not through this number,'' Phillips says in frustration. "I have to be able to put the owner with a number or a Web site or an address. This has been going on for months now, and I'm still trying to track him.''
Hear John rant
As Phillips knows, it can be difficult to determine who's behind the illegal signs. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that many of the real estate ads are placed by investors, not individuals trying to sell their homesteads.
When a reporter called the number for a house for "$36K — Great Area,'' the man who phoned back identified himself as "John Doe.'' He said he and his partners bought bank-owned properties for resale and considered the signs posted around St. Petersburg to be "a very inexpensive form of advertising.''
But Doe acknowledged that he had been fined and complained bitterly about the city's enforcement efforts. He claimed Phillips had confiscated signs from private property and run stop signs in her zeal to get license tag numbers.
"She's become a vigilante,'' he said. "They call us and act as if they're a buyer, which is basically a form of entrapment. There are so many things going on in this town, why do they have to harass people running legitimate businesses?''
Phillips says she abides by the law. She has, though, taken tag numbers of people putting up signs. She also tries to get as much information as she can before revealing her identity and warning scofflaws that they have 24 hours to remove a sign or face a penalty of up to $500.
"Usually that gets their attention,'' Phillips says, "and 60 percent come out and get the sign. It's the other 40 percent that cause problems.''
As St. Petersburg's snipe sign program nears its first anniversary, the city has issued 373 citations with $84,000 in fines. Among those cited was the company that blanketed the area with "Rent your House for the Super Bowl'' signs.
"We've had a really positive response from the community,'' says Todd Yost, director of codes compliance assistance. "I don't mean to pick on places like Seminole, but you can really tell the difference if you cross the border with St. Petersburg.''
Phillips agrees. On her way back to the office, she drives through the unincorporated Lealman area where illegal signs are everywhere. Some have been there so long the ink has faded.
"This is what our city used to look like,'' Phillips says. "I sit at these lights and I'm like, 'Get rid of these signs!' ''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]