The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled yesterday that pending an appeal, Boisclair Advertising Inc. does not have to remove the hundreds of billboards in Baltimore that were declared illegal by a Circuit Court judge last month.
Attorneys for Boisclair had challenged the Oct. 24 decision by Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, who ordered Boisclair to remove the billboards that the city argued were in violation of zoning laws.
"What it boils down to is the judge was just wrong," said Walter E. Diercks, an attorney for Boisclair.
At issue are the so-called "junior" billboards -- placards 5 feet by 10 feet that often are affixed to the sides of stores and other buildings. About 900 of them are in residential neighborhoods; 390 are in business and industrial zones but lack proper permits.
A coalition of community groups has prodded local elected officials to have the billboards removed for the past year, saying they are a blight on neighborhoods and unfairly prey upon minorities and the poor with advertising for alcohol and tobacco.
The billboards have flourished in Baltimore in part because a 1971 zoning law that bans such billboards in residential neighborhoods has never been enforced.
James A. Eatrides, president of Boisclair, has said that because many of the billboards were up long before zoning laws existed, the city should be required to compensate his company for any signs he is forced to take down. He said his signs were worth about $2 million in terms of capital investment and annual income.
"In effect, what the city is trying to do is take property without paying for it," Mr. Diercks said.
Mr. Diercks also said that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke reneged on an agreement he reached with Boisclair a year ago. Under the agreement, Boisclair would have reduced the number of illegal signs by 400 and redistributed the remainder around town.
But pressure from the community organizations apparently helped persuade the mayor to change his mind and try to get all of the signs removed. Since his decision to challenge all of the signs, lawyers for the city argued that the mayor, who is a lawyer, did not have the right to enter into such an agreement without having the city's top legal officer sign off on it.
In his October ruling, 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.
Should the Court of Special Appeals uphold the Boisclair appeal, it could return the case to the Baltimore Circuit Court for trial, Mr. Diercks said.