Baltimore County bans many signs Some displays allowed to stay for 15 years

September 03, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Aiming to reduce the visual clutter along Baltimore County roads, the County Council moved last night to regulate signs ranging from huge billboards to lawyers' shingles, part of the first comprehensive sign law in more than 40 years.

"The sign regulation for Baltimore County finally passes," Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, said after the unanimous vote of the seven-member council. "It took a lot of perseverance from everyone to get this through."

The law bans most roof signs, pennants and portable signs, and freezes the number of billboards throughout the county.

Change could come slowly -- although regulations such as the freeze on billboards take effect in 45 days, many offending signs won't have to be removed for 15 years.

And the head of the county's enforcement agency said he expected difficulty in making the law stick.

"I'm going to have trouble," said Arnold Jablon, head of the Department of Permits and Development Management. "There are a lot of enforcement issues."

Jablon requested and received several amendments before the council vote, including more precise definitions of what constitutes portable, temporary and permanent signs. The council also deleted a section that would have permitted signs within road rights of way in certain circumstances; such signs are now illegal.

Jablon said he felt more comfortable with the legislation after the council adopted his amendments, but said he still expects it will take time before the staff and public understand all of the law's ramifications.

Among the changes are limiting shopping center signs to no more than five lines of writing; reducing the number of free-standing signs at businesses and shopping centers from three to one and limiting the size of such signs, and allowing real estate agents to put "sold" or "contract pending" on "for sale" signs.

Tried for 30 years

The County Council has tried off and on for nearly 30 years to adopt a new sign law, and applause greeted last night's action.

"More committee members would have been here, but they have retired," joked Wayne Skinner, a Planning Board member who worked on a committee that reviewed changes in the law several years ago.

Community leaders had urged greater sign restrictions to make neighborhoods more attractive. Although some businesses resisted, others agreed changes were needed.

The old law was adopted in 1954 -- before fast-food restaurants had drive-through menu boards, before car dealerships began representing different franchises and before gas stations were forced to list gasoline prices for motorists.

Because of the old law's inadequacies, many businesses had to apply for variances to erect the signs they needed.

While all the council members agreed the law should be changed, they had trouble determining exactly what changes should be made. When the council proposed outlawing all rooftop signs, the owners of businesses with distinctive signs, such as the Bel-Loc Diner, objected. So the council decided such business owners can petition to have their signs exempted.


Representatives of Penn Advertising of Baltimore, which erects area billboards, wanted exemptions for their new "tri-vision" boards that show three messages, and the Council agreed to permit such signs provided the company helps remove other nonconforming signs.

Even as late as last week, business owners were expressing concerns that some provisions of the bill -- such as a limit to the number of messages on electronic message boards -- violated free speech rights. The Council agreed to delete the restrictions on the number of electronic messages a sign can display.

Altogether, the law adopted last night included more than a four dozen amendments.

"We have managed to wind our way through the process," Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller said.

Pub Date: 9/03/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.