Officials find them illegal, unsightly CENTRAL COUNTY -- Arnold * Broadneck * Severna Park * Crownsville * Millersville


February 18, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

The familiar hand-lettered red signs stand out against the side of Fishpaw's white building: Sale! Dewar's White Label $26.99 Harwood Canadian $10.99 Sale!

The Arnold liquor store has been there since shortly after the repeal of Prohibition. But the question that the Greater Severna Park Council and county officials are asking is, "How long have the signs been there?"

Because if they didn't go up until after a 1952 zoning law went into effect, they have to come down. Fishpaw's says the signs were up before the ordinance went into effect.

It is a familiar battle between beauty and business, pitting the aesthetic interests of the community against the financial interests of a single family.

Owner Kim Lawson insists she needs to be able to advertise on the outside of the building because she has no windows in which she could place paper signs announcing weekly prices.

"What is upsetting," says Ms. Lawson, "is that stores in shopping centers can have 30 percent of their window space used for paper signs. But because we're a free-standing building without window space, we're being penalized."

The Greater Severna Park Council condemns the plethora of signs as unsightly. "You can describe Fishpaw's any way you want, but desirable is not a word I would choose," says Al Johnston, the council's legislative chairman.

The council has managed in the past few years to get 15 merchants along Benfield Boulevard to take down signs that violated county laws. "Every one of them cleaned up," says Mr. Johnston, who calls himself the "chief sign-chaser."

Two other Severna Park businesses, however, managed to prove to the county that their signs had existed before the 1952 ordinance. Fishpaw's has attempted to do the same, so far without success.

A year and a half ago, the county informed Fishpaw's that the signs papering its white frame building weren't legal.

Ms. Lawson and her sister, Rachel Lawson, argued last year that the signs had been there since before the ordinance.

But the county planning office ruled in July that they failed to prove their case.

Fishpaw's is appealing the decision before the Board of Appeals on April 27 at 6:30 p.m.

From the county's perspective, Fishpaw's is a renegade, the only Severna Park business that failed to comply when the county cracked down on paper signs.

"Most people complied," said Suzanne Schappert, a county planner. "This is the only one out of all recent sign ordinance violations we had that has made application to keep their signs."

The Greater Severna Park Council voted last week to attend the appeals hearing to support the county's enforcement of the ordinance. "Fishpaw's is number one in the proliferation of these illegal and most unattractive temporary signs," said Mr. Johnston.

To the Lawsons, however, the legal tussle represents a basic inequity in the law, one that discriminates against businesses not located in shopping centers.

Fishpaw's stands alone on Ritchie Highway in Arnold, with barely enough space for a few cars and an ice machine.

Kim Lawson says the stores that have suffered from the county's recent enforcement of the sign law are "older established businesses."

"They're businesses that have been here for years and years," she says.

Named after former owner Bill Fishpaw, the liquor store remains a neighborhood hangout of sorts, a place where you can walk into the cozy interior and find senior citizens picking up a beer and shooting the breeze.

Ms. Lawson says she doesn't object to obeying the laws, nor to improving the looks of her business. "I just want to be able to advertise," she said. "Without signs, it looks like you're not open."

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