City Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan has ordered Boisclair Advertising Inc. to remove more than 1,300 billboards ruled in violation of city zoning laws.
While the judge decreed that the signs must be removed within 60 days, it is uncertain how long they will remain in place because the legal battle may not be over.
"We will definitely appeal Kaplan's order," James A. Eatrides, president of Boisclair, said yesterday, shortly after the ruling. He declined further comment.
City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said she has asked the city Law Department to see if Kaplan's order can be enforced even though Boisclair intends to appeal.
Deputy City Solicitor Ambrose T. Hartman said that "the risk of that is if we should lose on appeal -- and we are confident we won't -- the city would be liable for the cost to Boisclair of taking down the signs and putting them back up and that could be a considerable sum of money."
Hartman said that if Boisclair appeals, it would likely ask the appellate court for an expedited hearing and petition Kaplan for an extension of his order until the expedited process is completed.
"The city would probably agree to a reasonable extension," Hartman said.
dTC Kaplan ordered Boisclair to remove signs in zoning districts where they are expressly prohibited. He also ordered the removal of signs in zoning districts where they are allowed but where the firm failed to obtain the proper permits.
The judge dismissed Boisclair's claim that efforts by the city to force the removal of its signs violated its constitutional rights by depriving the company of its property without just compensation.
Kaplan also ruled against the advertising company's contention that the city action would interfere with Boisclair's contracts with owners of property where the signs are erected.
"I'm extremely pleased about this ruling," added Clarke.
"This is fantastic; it upholds our faith in the legal system," exclaimed Barbara Furguson, a co-chairman of the Coalition for Beautiful Neighborhoods. The coalition formed in January from over 30 community and religious groups determined to fight the billboards.
Furguson wasn't concerned that an appeal by Boisclair might mean a delay in removing the signs. "We have a ruling saying the signs are illegal. Boisclair will do what it has to do."
The disputed signs, which are 50-square feet, are called junior billboards because they are significantly smaller than the regular billboards of 240 to 670 square feet. The small billboards often advertise alcohol and tobacco and they are usually placed on the sides or fronts of businesses in predominantly black neighborhoods.
The city filed suit against Boisclair last May. Boisclair filed a countersuit against the city and the court consolidated the two suits.
Kaplan heard a motion to dismiss Boisclair's suit Sept. 9 and threw out three of the firm's five counts. He ruled on the remaining two counts yesterday.
The city's effort to enforce its zoning regulations covering billboards was a legal exercise of its police powers, Kaplan ruled.
One of the earlier counts dismissed by Kaplan maintained that the city's suit violated an agreement between Boisclair and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, signed last November. The agreement gave the company four years to voluntarily reduce the number of its billboards and to limit the number of tobacco and alcohol related ads. Boisclair argued this was an enforceable contract. Kaplan disagreed.
The history of billboard regulation began in 1950 when the City Council passed an ordinance requiring billboards in residential zones to be removed in five years.