The bell has rung for the "last round" in a two-year battle over illegal billboard advertising in Baltimore.
The city zoning board has begun hearings on applications by a Baltimore company for permits for 89 "junior billboards" on the sides of buildings throughout the city. The applications are being vigorously contested by a coalition of community groups.
The signs, which measure about 6 feet by 12 feet, often contain advertising for alcohol and tobacco products, are posted in poorer neighborhoods and are among several hundred a city Circuit Court judge ruled illegal two years ago.
In December, Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan gave the company, Boisclair Advertising/Chesapeake Outdoor Enterprises, until Oct. 1 to obtain valid permits for the billboards or remove them.
Hundreds of the billboards, which were posted in residential areas in violation of city zoning laws, have been removed while the company tries to determine whether it has permits for an unspecified additional number in areas where they are legal, officials said.
The permits being sought yesterday before the zoning board were for billboards already posted in areas where they are allowed under city zoning laws. The company had never obtained zoning board approval for billboards at those locations.
Opponents argued that the applications should not be approved because the billboards face homes, schools and churches and unconscionably exploit residents of low-income communities by promoting alcohol and tobacco use.
"This is the last round in a long effort. These junior billboards have been blighting our neighborhoods year after year," City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said at a rally of those opposing the applications shortly before the hearings began.
Barbara Ferguson, co-chairwoman of the Coalition for Beautiful Neighborhoods, which represents dozens of community groups opposed to the billboards, argued that Boisclair Advertising/Chesapeake Outdoor Enterprises should pay the city a fee for the illegal billboards it maintained for years but has since removed before the city considers any new applications for billboard permits. At $350 a sign, she calculated that the company would owe the city more than $300,000.
Eric Rubin, a Washington attorney representing the company, told the zoning board that the permits being sought were for a "very carefully culled group of signs" that comply with city zoning laws and that most of the complaints "are not well taken at all."
The company withdrew its application for four permits for eight billboards at the start of the hearings, and Mr. Rubin said it would voluntarily restrict advertising on billboards near schools and churches for products that minors are not supposed to purchase.
By late yesterday afternoon, the zoning board had heard testimony on about a third of the more than 40 separate applications, many of which were for more than one billboard.