Billboard deadline is at hand

September 29, 1992

One battle is almost concluded in the fierce war over hundreds of illegal billboards that had been allowed to stand unchallenged in neighborhoods throughout Baltimore City for years.

Under an order by Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, tomorrow is the deadline for those hundreds of billboards to come down. One company, Boisclair Advertising/Chesapeake Outdoor Enterprises, tried to get belated permits for 84 of its smaller billboards last week, but the zoning board rejected every one of its applications.

The Coalition for Beautiful Neighborhoods, which has been pressing the issue for the past two-and-a-half-years, is ecstatic. "We have fought for over three years against this company and these illegal billboards," says coalition chairperson Barbara C. Ferguson. "These billboards are a blight on our community."

The wider war is continuing, however. It is pitting that coalition of neighborhood groups against the whole outdoor advertising industry. The next battle will be waged in the City Council, where four bills were introduced just before the summer break to regulate legal billboards.

One bill -- targeted specifically against alcohol and tobacco products -- would ban billboards and posterboards advertising products which are "illegal for minors to purchase, consume or use."

Another would freeze any new permits for "billboards and posterboards" until May 1, 1995, because "substantial" numbers of such boards already exist, causing "visual blight" and "stagnant property values" as well as "growing community concern" for traffic safety and aesthetics.

The remaining two bills would subject outdoor signs to annual fees and could change the method of valuation of billboards for property tax purposes.

The fight over these bills is likely to be far more serious than the battles over the illegal billboards. Those billboards, after all, were unlawful and in no way defensible. Many of them also were owned by a company that received no great sympathy from advertising giants.

The four bills before the City Council, in contrast, could curtail the activities of the entire billboard industry. If passed, they might be a precedent for similar actions in other cities and counties. For that reason, the industry is likely to view possible government intervention not as a minor irritant but a major threat. It can either try to defeat the bills outright or negotiate compromise legislation with less bite.

Many billboards are aesthetically unappealing. Concentrated in poor neighborhoods, they often peddle undesirable, habit-forming merchandise. We support corrective action, but these four bills are poorly written. They require revision before any of them merits serious consideration.

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