Salvaging items from county-owned vacant land
December 16, 2014 9:03 AM   Subscribe

While exploring the woods this past weekend, I spotted a unique item near the river.

Behold, a vintage Texaco Sign & Banjo Pole from 1955. To give you an idea of its size, the porcelain sign is 6 feet in diameter, and the banjo pole is 18 feet tall. It even has the 2 original light fixtures on top.

My initial plan was to find the current landowner and contact them about buying the sign. After researching my county’s appraisal district website, I discovered that the county acquired this land over 30 years ago. The land is classified as “Exempt Vacant Land” and has an appraised value of $0.00. The Texaco sign is the only notable item on the land, and the land is located in a floodway with zero chance for development.

My question is: do you think it’d be possible for me to legally acquire the sign and pole from the county? Does anyone know what that process might involve, besides pain and suffering? I do have the contact information for the county department that owns the land. However, I’d like to get some feedback and suggestions here before I inform the county of the sign’s existence.
posted by foot to Law & Government (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think what you're going to run into is extreme risk aversion on their part. If they give you permission to go in and get that sign and then it topples over onto your head, they've got a huge liability on their hands. One thing you could maybe do to mitigate that is to preemptively contact some licensed contractors (or excavators?) to see if they'd be willing to take on the work. You could then approach the county and say "here is my plan for recovering the sign; such and such contractor has their own insurance."

Basically, they aren't going to care about the sign, but they are going to care about whether the process of removing it puts them at risk in some way. Think through that part of it before anything else.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:17 AM on December 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

You need to find an advocate inside the county bureaucracy. Maybe start with the county PR or spokesperson and sell yourself to them as trying to preserve history or something else that will play well on the evening news. A local historical preservation group might help and their is likely someone at the county who is tasked with historical preservation as part of their duties. This may not work if you are looking to sell it for profit or for some home decoration. Local governments are always on the lookout for free positive PR, and let them guide you on how to make this happen.

mudpuppie advice is also spot on, be prepared to spend some money/time/effort on providing them cover from something going wrong. Hold harmless agreements and insurance requirements can be pretty tough, a contractor with experience on local government contracts will be valuable also.
posted by bartonlong at 9:25 AM on December 16, 2014

I'm going to guess that the county, upon hearing that someone wants the sign, will put it up for public auction.

But maybe not - if you're willing to hire a contractor to safely remove it.
posted by vitabellosi at 9:29 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're thinking of just stealing it, bear in mind that somebody else out there -- maybe stoner kids, or squirrel hunters, or whoever -- probably loves that sign, and considers it part of their history.

(Not sure what you do with that, though. Maybe leave the sign in place, where it looks gorgeously site-specific. Maybe make a hefty donation to the county's Stoner & Squirrel Hunter Fund. Maybe, after talking to the county and establishing yourself as first in line, put up a sign on the sign, with a notebook, like they have in hikers' huts on the Appalachian Trail, inviting community discussion. If a certain amount of time passes and no one has written anything, you can remove the sign with a relatively clear conscience.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 9:31 AM on December 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

I know this is not the OP's question, since the OP said "legally" acquire it ... but I do not think you could just take the sign with a clear conscience under ANY cicircumstances without express permission of the county. Clearly it has value. The appraised value of the land is immaterial.

The only thing you can do is contact the county and make an offer to buy it.

IMHO they would be tremendously short sighted to sell it, and would be failing in their stewardship of lands that belong to the public.
posted by jayder at 10:14 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Before you contact the county department, do a little research on your elected officials and contact the one(s) who seem(s) like they'd be most sympathetic to you plans. They'll let you know what to do, who to contact, and whether you're the 13th person this month to ask about the sign and it's never going anywhere.

I'm shocked the thing isn't pocked with bullet holes. You sure no one's looking after it?
posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:26 AM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Interesting that it's not lost in a sea of underbrush, and the grass around it looks to have been cut periodically. I suspect someone's maintaining the site.
posted by jon1270 at 10:29 AM on December 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

A local historical preservation group might help and their is likely someone at the county who is tasked with historical preservation as part of their duties.

Local historic preservationists are not going to be interested in helping someone remove a historic sign from its historic location for their personal use. Just the opposite: the most likely outcome of contacting historic preservationists is the creation of a grass-roots SAVE THE HISTORIC TEXACO SIGN advocacy group, which is going to run counter to your goals. And make you Public Enemy #1 in local historic preservation circles.

And I'm not sure I would blame them. This sign is a pretty great thing in a really unexpected location that speaks to the history of a place before its abandonment; it seems a bit crass to pluck it out of a place where it's survived for so long so that you, and only you, can enjoy it. Now if you did want to form an advocacy group to keep watch over and maintain the sign, that would be a different story.
posted by Leatherstocking at 10:31 AM on December 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Also, government agencies are generally required to go through a formal process to dispose of property like this, especially property, like this sign, that has some value. They can't just give it to the first person who asks. They are probably legally required to call an auctioneer, appraiser, someone like that, so that they can make sure they're getting fair market value for the item being sold, and then formally announce a call for bids or an auction, or some "official" way of disposing of the property. I think if you contacted people who deal in items like this, they would put a fairly substantial value on it--well over $1,000, I would think. People go nuts over these old gas station signs, and they're highly collectible and coveted.
posted by Leatherstocking at 10:38 AM on December 16, 2014

Response by poster: I respect the moral indignation over removing the sign, but this is not public land, nor is it some pristine forest woodland. The site is a former trailer park and current dumping ground, and it’s only through selective framing that my photo doesn’t capture that aspect of it.
posted by foot at 12:08 PM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

The county almost certainly has a policy somewhere for disposal of surplus property. Ideally what I'd imagine you want to do is get the sign declared surplus property, then have them sell it to you (either directly if that's allowed, or via auction where nobody else bothers to bid on it but you) and then you go and get it once you own it.

You may be able to find something by searching for "[county name] surplus property".

In Virginia, and perhaps in other states, it is illegal for counties to dispose of public property by any means other than a public auction (with some minor caveats e.g. to volunteer fire departments and other quasi-governmental agencies).

It looks like Texas is the same way. (See Sec. 263.152.a.1) Unless you are a nonprofit, there has to be at least some sort of notional competitive bidding procedure for you to buy it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:21 PM on December 16, 2014

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