The Schmoke administration scored a win yesterday in its fight to remove illegal billboards from Baltimore neighborhoods when a city judge ordered an advertising company to take down the signs within 60 days.
Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan also ruled that Boisclair Advertising Inc. must pay for removing the signs, many of which advertise alcohol and cigarettes and are in poor, black neighborhoods.
Boisclair's lawyers said yesterday that the company will challenge the ruling.
"Absolutely, we're going to appeal," said Walter E. Diercks, one of the lawyers representing Boisclair. "It is just the beginning."
Mr. Diercks said Boisclair also will ask the Court of Special Appeals to stay Judge Kaplan's order, which means the signs -- as many as 1,300 -- may not come down until the legal fight is over.
For the past year, a coalition of community groups, as well as City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and other council members, have sought to remove the billboards that they contend violate zoning laws and are a blight on neighborhoods. At issue are the so-called "junior" billboards that measure 5 feet by 10 feet. About 900 of them are in residential neighborhoods; 390 are in business and industrial zones but lack proper permits.
Although there is a 1971 zoning law banning billboards in residential neighborhoods, it has never been enforced. Boisclair and its president, James A. Eatrides, have maintained that many of the billboards were up long before zoning laws existed.
Company officials also argued that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke reneged on an agreement with Boisclair last fall that would have allowed most of the signs to remain.
In November, Mr. Schmoke negotiated an agreement with Boisclair to reduce the number of illegal signs by 400 and redistribute the remainder around town.
But by February, the mayor decided he wanted all the signs out of residential neighborhoods The city has contended in court that he did not have authority to sign such an agreement anyway.
In May, the city and Boisclair sued one another. Last week, a coalition of community groups also filed a lawsuit against Boisclair seeking removal of the signs.
In its lawsuit, Boisclair sought compensation for any billboard it had already removed or would be ordered to take down. The company estimated its investment in the signs and the annual advertising revenue from them to be in excess of $2 million.
In ruling yesterday, Judge Kaplan granted the city's request for a summary judgment -- essentially deciding Boisclair didn't have enough of a case to merit a trial and making a judgment on information in the case without one.
Yesterday, the news of Judge Kaplan's ruling brought shrieks of glee from the city council president.
"All right! Are you serious?" a surprised Mrs. Clarke asked a city lawyer who brought news of the court order to her and Mayor Schmoke as they attended the Board of Estimates' weekly meeting.
Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, whose West Baltimore district has a concentration of the signs, echoed Mrs. Clarke's sentiments.
"I am elated. I think that it helps to reaffirm the community's faith in the system," Mr. Bell said. "My concern had been in recent months that people were beginning to lose faith and trust in the legal system and the political system to bring justice and to enforce the law. And that's why we began to see people whitewashing these billboards."
Boisclair is also appealing a previous ruling by Judge Kaplan that dismissed aspects of its lawsuit, including its contention that the city's efforts to remove the signs violated the company's right to due process.