Balloon tigers trapped by strict new sign law Nearly 170 violators told to remove flags, pennants in Balto. Co.

November 06, 1997|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's strict new sign law -- in effect less than three weeks -- has snared pennants, flags, portable signs and three huge orange tigers.

Using the law to combat the visual clutter along county roads, inspectors have caught almost 170 violators, and those are but a small sample of illegal signs on the streets, officials say. "It's overwhelming," said Raymond S. "Rick" Wisnom Jr., chief of the county's code inspections and enforcement division.

While most of the violations have been portable signs, pennants and streamers, the law also captured 20-foot tiger balloons perched above three Exxon stations.

The tigers went up Oct. 29 to mark grand opening celebrations at the service stations and were caught by inspectors the next day. The station owners had to remove the balloons, as well as Exxon flags and bunting, on Monday -- two days before the end of the weeklong promotions.

"We lost a lot of customers," said Sam Hassan, manager of York Exxon at York and Warren roads, where one of the tigers was perched. "We campaigned for a long time that this was going to be our grand opening. It was very important to have the tiger."

And the decorations did not come cheap -- station owners spent about $800 to rent the tigers and other trappings. "To be out this much money really puts a hurt in the pocketbook," said John Leahy, owner of Towson Town Exxon at Joppa Road and Virginia Avenue.

Baltimore County struggled for years to draft a new sign law that would cut down on the jumble of signs, pennants and banners, while addressing modern business practices. 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 service stations were forced to list gas prices for motorists.

Because of the old law's inadequacies, many businesses had to apply for variances to erect the signs they needed. After years of discussion, the County Council adopted a new law, which took effect Oct. 19.

That law regulates the size and number of signs across the county. It bans most roof signs, pennants and portable signs, and freezes the number of billboards throughout the county.

The law does allow business owners to display temporary signs for promotional events, but that provision didn't apply to the Exxon decorations, county officials ruled. "Plastic tigers don't count," said Arnold Jablon, director of the Department of Permits and Development Management.

Exxon, which frequently uses the tigers, pennants and buntings to mark celebrations at its stations, was unaware of the sign law when it planned "Customer Appreciation Days" at the county stations, said spokesman Joe Gonzales at the corporate headquarters in Houston.

Leahy said he heard no complaints about his tiger until the inspector came. "All of our customers thought it was beautiful."

Leahy, who owns several service stations in the Baltimore area, said he was amazed that the county would bar tigers and other decorations, considering the money Exxon had spent renovating a long-vacant service station. "They took an eyesore and turned it into something beautiful."

Mary Boegner who owns Towson Park Exxon with her husband, Craig, was aware that the law had changed, but didn't think it would apply to the tiger and flags put up to celebrate their business' recent renovation. "The kids loved it," she said. Robert L. McKinney, president of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has asked county officials to look into reports of overzealous enforcement of the sign law. "There have been some rumblings, but it isn't overwhelming."

Meanwhile, another county business owner, Bill Hacker, has no intention of removing the 3-by-4 foot Coca-Cola sign that inspectors deemed illegal last week.

"If you don't advertise, you won't get any business," said Hacker, owner of the 8 Days a Week convenience store on Taylor Avenue.

Two inspectors have been assigned to sign enforcement full time, and Wisnom said they have spent much of their time letting business owners know about the new sign law, which carries a $200-a-day-fine for violators.

Wisnom said his office has not been deluged with complaints but has heard from a few persistent callers demanding that the county crack down on sign law violators.

He added, "We'll always have a job to do."

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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