JOHNS ISLAND -- When Sam Brownlee sees "snipe signs," he sees litter.

The placards, hawking everything from mattresses to real estate, are stapled to poles and stuck in the ground all over the rural island, he said. Not only are they an eyesore, he said, but they fall down and litter the highways. Then mowing crews drive over them, chop them into little pieces and scatter them.

The illegally placed signs are a growing problem not only on Johns Island but also across the region. Most enforcement officials say they are trying to stay on top of the problem by removing the signs and warning those who posted them not to do it again.

But Brownlee and some other island residents think that if enforcement officials hit a few chronic sign posters with whopping fines, it would deter others from putting them up.

"It's just gotten out of hand on Johns Island," Brownlee said. "This 'uglifies' our community."

There other sources of litter on the island, he said. It blows off trucks, and some people just dump their trash on roads or in fields.

But the "snipe sign" problem has grown dramatically in recent months, he said. "One sign begets another sign," he said. "It's really a shame."

Brownlee said the intersection of Main and Chisholm roads is a magnet for the signs. That intersection falls in the city of Charleston.

Tim Keane, the city's director of planning, said "the proliferation of signs comes in waves," and the city is seeing a lot of them right now. City employees simply take them down when they see them, then talk to those who posted them, if they can determine who they are.

"Citations are rare," he said; posting an illegal sign could carry a fine up to $500.

In Charleston County, the fine could be as high as $1,080, said Planning Director Dan Pennick, but offenders rarely are fined. Most people who post the signs are simply trying to bring in business in tough economic times.

When the economy is bad, more people post signs, he said. "Some people look at it as visual pollution," he said. "But our goal is compliance, not jail or fines."

Pennick acknowledged that the county doesn't have enough staff to take down the signs on a regular basis. "It would take an army to keep up with it," he said.

Brownlee said he thinks enforcement is the key to turning around the problem. He understands that city and county officials are trying to deal with the problem, but they might be more successful if they got a little tougher. "Fining people gets their attention," he said.

The problem also has spread to Berkeley and Dorchester counties.

Berkeley County Planning Director Eric Greenway said, "They go up so quickly that it's very hard for our code enforcement staff to stay on top of them."

He also said the signs can be a hazard if they block motorists from seeing oncoming vehicles at intersections.

In Dorchester County, the signs are a problem in the Summerville area, especially along U.S. Highway 78, the Berlin Myers Parkway, Bacon's Bridge or Trolley roads, said Town Planner Jessi Shuler.

Usually pointing motorists to developing subdivisions, the signs get placed Friday evening and removed by Monday morning, she said. A town codes worker has gone out on Saturdays to track down offenders and pick up signs.

Mount Pleasant is the only municipality in the region where officials say they have made a dent in the problem.

Mark Sargeant, the town's code enforcement officer, said of the signs, "When we see them, we remove them." It's a seven-day-a-week job. "We're working on the weekend to keep people from trying to circumvent the rules," he said.

Brownlee said he's 75 years old and can't really get out there and remove the signs himself every day. He hopes city and county leaders will step up enforcement efforts, he said. People have started referring to Johns Island as "the place with all the signs."

Brenda Rindge and Bo Petersen contributed to this report. Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.