Lippy's Md. loyalty starts Pa. brouhaha He queried a sign insulting his state

October 04, 1992|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff Writer

Forget Watergate, Iran-contra, and the savings-and-loan scandals.

County Commissioner Elmer Lippy is caught in the middle of a political crisis so large, so looming, so important that it can only be called Signgate.

"I have stepped into heavy doo-doo, and I just can't seem to get out," he said Friday. "It was a mistaken move on my part."

What Commissioner Lippy did was make what he thought was an innocent call to Maryland highway officials a day after his wife noticed a billboard along Pa. Route 94.

The billboard welcomed Maryland-bound motorists to the "State of Taxes," which is not exactly what you'd expect to see coming into the Free State.

"While I agree with the people's rights to say whatever they want, that kind of a sign is up to Carroll County to bear. It doesn't necessarily reflect well on us, now does it?," the commissioner said. "I just wanted to see, you know, if the sign was on a public right-of-way, and, if it was, I wanted Pennsylvania officials to know about it."

His phone call to an engineer in the State Highway Administration's Frederick office initiated a chain reaction of bureaucratic responses on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The 8-by-12-foot billboard, about a mile north of the Maryland border, proclaims, in big white and yellow letters, "Welcome to Maryland, Stateof Taxes just ahead." Pennsylvania officials say the sign's message is brought to you by the Maryland Taxpayers Association, a Ruxton-based tax protest group. They could not be reached for comment.

ZTC The billboard -- which rents for about $600 a month -- is owned by Outdoor Advertising, a central Pennsylvania agency.

But a day after Commissioner Lippy's call to Frederick, a crew of York County workmen hired by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation found the offending sign, chain-sawed it out of the ground and took it to a PennDOT storage yard.

They shouldn't have been so zealous, Pennsylvania officials said -- because the billboard was not, and has never been, on a public right-of-way. It sits on the edge of a privately owned farm.

"This is really an embarrassment," said Greg Penny, a PennDOT district spokesman. "I got a call from our state office about a complaint of an illegal billboard, so I sent a crew out to remove it. I assumed it was on public property, so the crew probably made the same assumption. We made a lot of assumptions we shouldn't have made."

Because those assumptions led to the sign's demise, taxpayers in the Keystone State will be footing close to $1,000 to have the sign re-erected.

All so the state can take it down again in 30 days.

Mr. Penny said it appears that the sign was erected without the required permits. And because of zoning requirements and a tough new Pennsylvania standard on billboards, Outdoor Advertising -- also known as Valentino's Billboard Services -- won't, in all likelihood, be able to obtain a permit.

Mr. Penny said the state will try to negotiate with the company to try to head off the re-erection and re-removal of the sign. The company also might have to pay some of removal costs.

As part of Pennsylvania's move to crack down on illegal billboards, PennDOT has been scouring the commonwealth's highways and byways looking for them.

If an illegal board is found, the owner of the board is given 30 days to apply for a permit. If a permit is granted, the sign stays. If a permit is rejected, the sign is removed.

Commissioner Lippy said he never meant to squelch free speech, and said he apologized to John O'Keefe, an officer of Outdoor Advertising.

But he also defended his initial concern about the sign's location.

"Look, we're a nation of laws and regulation," the commissioner said, somewhat defensively. "And we should obey those laws. My job as an elected official is to make sure we are following the law."

Besides, the commissioner said, it's not that he even disagrees with the billboard's message.

After all, Carroll residents pay property taxes at the rate of $2.35 per $100 of assessed value, and they pay a total of 7.5 percent of their income to the state and local treasuries. By contrast, residents of Hanover, Pa., pay 3.8 percent of their incomes to state and borough coffers, and the property tax levy comes to just about $2.02 per $100.

Commissioner Lippy may someday cough up the cash to get the last laugh.

"I'd like to see a sign on our side of the line that says, 'Welcome to Maryland, the state of high wages, where many of you in Pennsylvania come to work,' " he said.

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