Sign Pollution

August 18, 1993

The late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity that he couldn't define it, but he knew it when it saw it. He could as easily have been discussing ugly business signs.

Baltimore County has been in a mini-tempest this summer over the little real estate signs that pop up on public rights of way every weekend (even though the much greater problem in that county is the runaway signs that mar Pulaski Highway and other major commercial arteries). The City Council in aesthetically-aware Annapolis just banned neon signs in the Historic District. And town fathers in rural Mount Airy in Carroll County are fed up with the temporary changeable-letter signs that are omnipresent these days and look like they belong on a carnival midway.

Especially with the economy still so sluggish, government officials come off as the heavies when they restrict signs or require business people to remove illegal signs. Many entrepreneurs, moreover, seem to have trouble looking beyond the success of their own operation. They can't see how their extra signs or their temporary flashing sign or any other device to attract attention hurts. But when everyone in business takes that attitude, the resulting clutter dilutes everyone's message.

It's not just ample parking, after all, that has made indoor suburban malls successful, but the uniformity and professionalism of their displays -- one store isn't straining to shout over another.

Maryland communities aren't alone in trying to rein-in runaway signage. Other states and municipalities have done so, often with promising results. In Lubbock, Texas, property values and retail sales doubled between 1975 and 1981 when stricter sign controls were phased in. Property values in a Pittsburgh neighborhood rose 65 percent after billboards were forced out. Raleigh, N.C., has seen enhancements from a strong sign code begun there a decade ago, though not without controversy.

The typical difficulty in trying to weed out overgrown signage is that (a) politicians are loathe to butt heads with business leaders, (b) the topic doesn't incite the passions of voters and (c) like most environmental legislation, the benefits of controlled signage can take years to see.

Planners and legislators should create sign controls with long phase-in schedules (cracking down on temporary signs, then illegal permanent signs) to give businesses time to conform. A single sign may advertise a service, but the aggregate announces what a community thinks of itself.

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