Signs behind the times Baltimore County: Bill to reform hopelessly outdated sign law is reasonable, necessary.

March 25, 1997

BALTIMORE COUNTY'S sign law has not changed since 1955. In fact, it makes no provision for menu boards at fast-food drive-thrus because such things did not exist in 1955. The same goes for canopies over gas stations. To get them, business owners must secure costly, time-consuming variances.

Revisions of local sign laws typically are intended to clean up sign pollution and are viewed with trepidation by business, which gets antsy when governments talk about taking signs down or making them smaller.

Baltimore County's efforts to update sign regulations have been no exception. Sign clutter along York and Reisterstown roads and U.S. 40 has been a concern for years. The county hasn't done anything about it because it has been easier to give up in the face of opposition than to draft a bill merchants would accept.

Finally, there are signs that sign reform may succeed. The Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce may not be jumping for joy over legislation sponsored by county councilmen Douglas Riley and T. Bryan McIntire, but for once, the group is not opposing it. Fast-food restaurants and car dealers actually support the bill. It makes it easier for businesses to accept new restrictions because it includes changes favorable to them, including recognizing needs that didn't exist four decades ago.

Menu boards and canopy signs would be allowed by right. Car dealerships would have to give up pennants and streamers, but could have separate signs for each franchise. Existing law, which allows stores and shopping centers three free-standing signs, would be tightened to permit one free-standing sign.

To compensate business owners, the size of the permitted sign would be enlarged. Businesses would have 15 years to comply with the changes. Nostalgic or distinctive signs could be excepted.

The bill is not a panacea. It ignores some controversial issues, such as window signs and temporary real estate signs.

And computer-generated "before and after" pictures of commercial strips show a subtle, rather than conspicuous, improvement.

Nonetheless, this is reasonable legislation that brings the sign law into the modern age. Some tinkering may be called for, but there's no doubt it should be passed.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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