Within six months all the so-called "junior" billboards advertising in Baltimore's residential neighborhoods will have to be removed as a result of a Circuit Court order signed yesterday by Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan.
Nonetheless, community leaders who have been pressuring the city government to take down the billboards, which often feature tobacco and liquor advertising in the city's poorer neighborhoods, said yesterday that they view that order as a setback.
"The billboards are illegal. When I break the law, I have to go to jail or pay a fine. This company has been able to cut a deal," said Sylvia D. Fulwood, a member of the Beautiful Neighborhood Coalition, an umbrella group of 60 community organizations and churches that has battled the billboards for two years.
"I am tired of having this illegal eye pollution in my neighborhood "she added".
Yesterday's order comes 14 months after Judge Kaplan ruled that the billboards, which are owned by Boisclair Advertising, violate the city's zoning code and should be removed.
Several members of the community group, which filed suit in October 1990 to force removal of the billboards, said they were frustrated that the judge did not adhere to his original order, which called for the junior billboards, so named because they are small enough to fit on the sides of row houses or taverns, to be removed within 60 days.
"We didn't abandon our right to negotiate," said the Rev. Norman Handy, pastor of Unity United Methodist Church. "We want the billboards down. We want this massive pity party for this company to end."
City officials are concerned about the financial condition of the company and have the Judge Kaplan's order itself notes if the company was forced into bankruptcy, the city alone would bear the removal costs.
Boisclair had appealed the ruling to the state Court of Special Appeals, which upheld Judge Kaplan's ruling on Oct. 31. The company, which had two months to appeal the matter to the Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, decided not to pursue the case any further.
Eric M. Rubin, a Washington attorney who represents Boisclair, said the company is not sure at this point how many billboards are covered by the order, but said his client will comply with the court action.
"Our focus, as well as that of the judge and the city, is to remove the signs in the residential areas," Mr. Rubin said. "We think this ,, will bring the whole matter to a close and satisfy the court order and allow the company to continue with its business."
The order calls for Claude E. Hitchcock, a Baltimore attorney who headed a 1989 billboard task force on billboards, to serve as a special master for the issue. He will first obtain an inventory of Boisclair's billboards in Baltimore and then establish a schedule for the removal of each of the signs.
Judge Kaplan's order calls for all residential billboards to be removed within six months and all illegal billboards in commercial and industrial areas to come down within nine months.
Those boards advertising tobacco and liquor in residential areas are to be covered or removed within four months, according to the order.
The number of billboards in residential areas covered by the order is between 500 and 800, depending on how signs on stores, taverns and other commercial sites in residential zones are considered.
In 1990, Boisclair said that it owned about 1,300 billboards in the city. About 800 were located in areas that were zoned residential, but a large number of those boards are attached to stores, taverns and other commercial buildings.
Under the city's zoning code, which was adopted in 1971, no billboards in residential areas are permitted. Existing billboards were supposed to be removed, but the city never enforced that provision of the code.
Billboards in industrial and commercial zones must be approved by the city and must pay taxes and fees. Billboard opponents point out that none of Boisclair's signs have received the proper city approvals and none are generating any tax revenues for the city.
Community groups say they fear Boisclair will try to delay removal of the boards on stores and taverns by appealing each case to the Municipal Zoning Board of Appeals.
"People who never obtained the proper permits will be able to jerk the system around by appealing board by board," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, an ally of the community opposition. "We don't have the resources to fight each appeal, and we all will be old and gray by the time these billboards are removed."
Judge Kaplan's order further allows his deadlines to be modified if the billboard removal causes Boisclair financial hardship.
Several members of the Coalition for Beautiful Neighborhoods said they are willing to raise money and hire unemployed people in their communities to remove the signs.