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Road Sign Thefts Plague Thetford

Thetford — Who is stealing Thetford’s road signs?

The disappearance of more than half of Thetford’s road signs over the past few months has frustrated town officials, who say it presents a potentially dangerous situation for emergency responders unfamiliar with the local map and ends up costing the town thousands of dollars in replacement costs.

Police said that during the past nine months about 50 road signs have disappeared which, according to Director of Public Works Scott Knowlton, accounts for between 55 percent to 60 percent of all road signs in Thetford. The thefts have been limited to the aluminum signs that identify the names of the town’s roads and do not include traffic signs, officials said, and perhaps are being stolen to sell for scrap metal.

“I think the rash that we’ve had recently has been pretty extreme,” said Selectman Tig Tillinghast.

Knowlton said he placed an order for 27 replacement road signs on Thursday with the state’s prison system, where inmates produce them. The signs should arrive in about 10 days, he said. More replacements likely will be ordered within the next month.

According to Police Chief Jim Lanctot, a potential delay in emergency response so far hasn’t been a problem. Thetford police are familiar with the town’s roads, he noted, and a road without a sign wouldn’t prevent an officer from knowing where it is.

However, Thetford utilizes the Fairlee’s Upper Valley Ambulance — and occasionally Hanover’s ambulances — for medical calls, Lanctot said, organizations where dispatchers and drivers aren’t fully knowledgeable of Thetford’s road system.

“It’s an absolute safety issue from an emergency response point of view,” Lanctot said.

“Time saves lives, you know?” Knowlton added.

Without signs, it can also be difficult for out-of-towners to know where they are going, even with good directions, considering so many roads are now not identified, he said.

Stolen signs also present a financial issue, officials said.

Lanctot said he was unsure of a cost for an individual road sign, but said the total replacement costs for stolen road signs in recent years has approached $15,000. Knowlton declined to discuss the replacement costs for the most recent spate of thefts.

Though road signs tend to disappear on occasion, Lanctot said — often taken by students as a going-away-to-college souvenir following high school graduation — every few years theft activity spikes for a few months.

“What we’ve seen before is that people go and do it serially,” Tillinghast said. “It’s an activity. It’s something that they’re going off and doing.”

Lanctot said that in the past decade, theft sprees have emerged about once every two or three years. He said that those who take the signs could throw them in a fire, for instance, which burns off the reflective letters and covering, and then bring the normal-looking aluminum to a scrap yard to sell for cash.

Judy Belyea, of Evergreen Recycling in Wilder, said in an email that her facility generally pays 46 cents per pound to those scrapping aluminum. The typical road sign ways about four pounds.

To combat the possibility of the new signs being stolen, officials have been looking into making them tamper-proof. At the April 8 Selectboard meeting, Knowlton said he had investigated such measures, but found them to be “prohibitively expensive.”

Tillinghast mentioned that when it comes to recovering stolen signs, perpetrators are often discovered through the town grapevine: for example, chatter that a teen suddenly has a street sign hanging on his bedroom wall or garage.

So Knowlton borrows a popular law enforcement phrase for Thetford residents: If you see something, say something.

“Somebody saw something,” Knowlton said. “Somebody out there knows. They know who did this and they know who’s doing this.”

But, failing word-of-mouth, town officials hint that they may have other means at their disposal for discovering the identity of the thieves, with Tillinghast alluding to “a bee in our bonnet.”

“Whatever is physically possible for us to do we are doing, and then some,” he said.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.