'Welcome to wherever' Crackdown on signs at town limits distorts Highway Beautification Act.

November 10, 1997

"WELCOME TO our fair city," reads the road sign near the municipal limits.

"Take down that eyesore of our fair state," replies the officious State Highway Administration.

Mount Airy faces the state's tear-down edict for two signs at its northern Carroll County entrance at state Routes 808 and 27. There's a welcome sign, donated by the Lions Club and other service organizations. And a three-year-old sign that celebrates the city's centennial in 1994.

The Draconian measures were adopted by the SHA in response to General Assembly legislation on highway signage that calls for toughening enforcement of the 30-year-old federal Highway Beautification Act and clearing signs from rights of way on state roads. Previously, the focus was on maintaining sign-free interstate highways.

The main complaints in Maryland were about huge commercial billboards, weekend real estate development signs and the ubiquitous portable yellow signboards. Authorities said they needed clear legislative guidance.

But the most visible targets of the state crackdown this fall have been municipalities, churches and roadside farm produce stands. That has provoked a backlash, even among the most fervent billboard opponents. Critics see Maryland abusing the federal law that was closely linked to the campaign of former first lady Lady Bird Johnson.

State officials argue that it is a motor safety issue, that drivers' attention is diverted from traffic conditions. Still, they use as justification the "beautification" statute.

Legislators are proposing legal exemptions for qualified entities, such as a town or civic group, with some limits. But that might provoke endless litigation, and lobbying efforts by other nonprofits to join the exempt. Farmers may push for signs to pick-your-own fields and roadside stands, colleges and hospitals may demand their right to right-of-way signs.

The better solution is for towns and organizations to keep off the state rights of way, and to relocate signs on private property. If rezoning of private land is needed, let the county or municipality do it, with reasonable restrictions.

That would be a hopeful sign of common sense.

Pub Date: 11/10/97

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