Billboards, Too, Are Always With Us

COMMENT

February 28, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM | BRIAN SULLAM,Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Counting the number of billboards along Route 140 between the Liberty Reservoir and Westminster is currently my daughters' favorite car game.

These two young ladies have done a great deal of traveling in their lives and have seen many remarkable sights in the United States and Asia, but the abundance of billboards along Carroll County's major thoroughfare seems to have made a profound impression on them.

They used to amuse themselves on car trips by counting American flags. But I can't remember when they last played that game. They also used to count Volkswagen bugs, which they called "punch buggies," but that game also passed by the wayside. Now, they can't wait to count billboards.

At first, their fascination with the billboards puzzled me, but then it dawned on me. They had never seen quite such a dense display of these oversized signs in their lives. Even in Los Angeles, where billboards stand like sentinels in close formation along the city's freeways, there isn't such a jumble of signs as we have along Route 140.

There are 362 billboards along Carroll's state roads, according to the State Highway Administration. In Maryland, the highway department has issued permits for 4,439 signs, which means that Carroll has 8.3 percent of the total billboards along state roads. The county government has no accurate record of billboards because the county doesn't collect any yearly fees from them.

My children also have trouble keeping a precise count, particularly when their father has the family car cruising at the 55 mph speed limit or faster, which he sometimes does. The billboards, located on both sides of the road, pass by too quickly. They always miss one or two when we travel north on Route 140 right before the intersection at Gamber Road and the stretch between Sandymount and Bethel roads.

Invariably, there are also disputes over how to count the large signs in front of some of the roadside businesses.

The worst thing is that as these children grow older, they will be able to continue playing this game, if they desire. Although the phrase "they will always be with us" has been used to describe the poor, it can also be applied to billboards because no one has developed a method for eliminating them.

Under current Carroll County zoning laws, billboards can only be erected in commercial and business districts. However, those signs that were located in agricultural and residential districts were grandfathered in as non-conforming uses when the zoning amendments were passed in 1978.

As a result of the grandfathering, there are billboards advertising fast food outlets and school lunches (which need more than promotion to improve their popularity) in the middle of what otherwise would be scenic stretches along Route 140.

Even though the federal government has enacted laws discouraging billboards along interstate highways and encouraging state highway departments to remove signs from scenic state roads, the number of billboards never declines. The problem is that billboard companies demand compensation for their removal.

The 1965 Highway Beautification Act contained provisions that set aside money to pay for the removal of billboards along the nation's interstates. But within 15 years after its passage, the fund was depleted. Attempts in Congress to devise alternative methods that would allow local governments to remove signs have repeatedly been defeated by the well-financed billboard lobby.

Amortization was one of these alternative mechanisms. As proposed, local governments would be able to amortize the value of the billboards to determine the compensation a company could receive. Under this method, a billboard that has been around for years and had more than paid for itself could be considered to have no value. The local government would be free to tear it down and pay no compensation.

Rather than get bogged down in debating whether a fully depreciated billboard (you can bet the companies milk the tax code for every deduction they can) has any value, there may be an alternative strategy.

Every billboard along a state road requires a permit. At the moment, the permit fees, last set in 1977, are minimal -- ranging from $5 a year for a 200-square-foot board to $17.50 for a 1,000-square-foot board.

The State Highway Administration's outdoor advertising department is considering a proposal to double these fees and the license fees the billboard companies pay. The companies are already screaming bloody murder that they are facing a 100 percent increase in the fees. If these fees had kept pace with inflation, the current levies would have to be increased by 128 percent.

Instead of having flat fees for these billboards, the department should consider a sliding scale. Each year the billboard is up, the fee goes up 25 percent. Under this method, the older billboards will eventually lose their profitability, and the companies will be forced to tear them down.

Billboard companies will complain that their business is being singled out for this unfair taxation. But it is no different that the decision to place burdensome taxes on cigarettes and alcohol in hopes of discouraging their use.

If we don't take any action, my descendants living in the 21st century will still be playing the billboard counting game.

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