Mobile cigarette 'blight' banished Baltimore attempts to drive billboard trucks from city

March 11, 1998|By Scott Shane and John B. O'Donnell | Scott Shane and John B. O'Donnell,SUN STAFF

In a shift of policy, Baltimore officials announced yesterday they have decided that mobile billboard trucks violate the city's ban on tobacco and alcohol billboards and have issued a violation notice to a Pennsylvania company.

"We think that we're certainly within our legal rights to try to get rid of this blight on our communities," said City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III. "It's another one of those things that make people say, 'I'd like to go live someplace else.' "

Henson and Zoning Administrator Donna A. Johnson said a violation notice was sent last week to Do It Outdoors Inc. of York, Pa., which has had three mobile billboards for Winston and Camel cigarettes cruising city streets this year. The notice directed the company to stop displaying cigarette and alcoholic beverage advertisements in "publicly visible" locations, except in certain industrial, commercial and highway zones that are exempt from the ban.

Johnson said the company has until Friday to comply with the notice or file an appeal of the charge, which could result in a fine of up to $1,000 a day.

Do It Outdoors did not respond yesterday to telephone calls seeking comment.

Carole Crosslin, a spokeswoman for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., maker of Winston and Camel, said the company decided Monday to order the mobile billboards out of Baltimore until the legal controversy is resolved.

But as Johnson spoke to a reporter about the mobile billboards yesterday afternoon, she looked out her office window onto East Fayette Street and spotted one rolling past. "This is beautiful," Johnson said. "There's a Winston truck outside right now."

Informed that the billboards were still in town, Crosslin said she would investigate. She called back last night to say Reynolds Tobacco had asked Do It Outdoors to contact their drivers by radio. "They should be leaving the city even as we speak," she said.

Pete Pakas, an organizer for the Citizens Planning and Housing Association on the billboard issue, praised the city's move against the moving targets.

"This is like roach infestation," he said. "It's only going to spread if there's no attempt at enforcement."

The mobile cigarette billboards are displayed on both sides of narrow trailers that drive and park regularly around the Inner Harbor and in Fells Point, often on streets where fixed billboards clearly would be illegal. Lighted at night, the trucks make a striking appearance and exist only for advertising, with minimal cargo capacity.

Last month, in response to an inquiry from The Sun, Johnson said the billboard ban did not apply to mobile billboards and zoning laws could not be used to combat them.

But she said yesterday that city attorneys decided the advertising trucks are "general advertising signs" covered by the city's parallel 1994 laws limiting tobacco and liquor billboards.

After the Supreme Court in April refused to hear a challenge to Baltimore's laws, ending the industry's lengthy constitutional challenge, zoning and housing inspectors surveyed the city for illegal billboards. They found 76 billboards in violation and are studying 50 others.

A hearing on the issue scheduled for March 31 before the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals is seen by anti-billboard activists as a crucial showdown.

Pub Date: 3/11/98

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