Ugly signs

August 10, 1993

Baltimore County presides over some of the ugliest commercial arteries in the state. Most children put more thought into their neighborhood lemonade stands than many merchants on Pulaski Highway put into their exterior design and signage. The Liberty and York roads corridors are less cluttered, but still have much room for improvement.

So what is the big sign improvement issue in the county these days: What to do about the 1-foot by 2-foot signs that new home developers plant temporarily each weekend to direct prospective buyers.

Why some folks in Baltimore County fret over the drizzle of real estate signs and not the deluge of business uglification in some sections, who knows? New home signs aren't a big issue elsewhere in the region. That's not to say the neighborhood associations fighting the real estate signs don't make some good points; they do. They suggest that a few generic directional signs would cut the clutter of every development competing with its own sign. Also, taxpayers might not be too happy that developers get to use public rights of way for free, especially when the signs are not just directing lost buyers but trying to entice them with soda giveaways and other promotions.

While the rancor these signs have generated is unusual, the amount of business these signs reportedly generate -- half of new home sales, builders claim -- might also surprise more methodical real estate shoppers.

About the only predictable reaction to these signs is that county politicians are for the most part scared silly over the issue. The county planning board couldn't devise a suitable compromise and the County Council, with an election year upcoming, is loath to wade in. Although many people would agree in theory that the image businesses project greatly affects an area's quality of life, many merchants and others don't believe government should get too involved in such issues. Or perhaps they simply can't tell an attractive business front from a tasteless one. But better signage, landscaping and facade treatments have helped revitalize other urban centers and suburban strips across.

With County Executive Roger Hayden in the process of drafting new sign regulations, greater sign controls would help the county in its competition with the newer suburbs. County officials need to tackle the sign problem in general, even though they won't be motivated to do so by all the steam produced by a seemingly inconsequential piece of the larger issue.

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