Billboard jungle on Rt. 140 Conflict: Residents who see clutter on Route 140 want to remove signs that business owners say are vital to their survival.

November 04, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Visitors to Carroll County often expect to be greeted by flawless rows of corn and soybeans or the historic farmhouses that have made the county famous.

But when they cross the border on Route 140 from Baltimore County, they are more likely to be sold on the latest athletic shoes, the "pleasures of Newport" cigarettes or the new Volkswagen bug.

Billboards cluster around the busy entry point, making Carroll home to more billboards than almost anywhere else in the state. Only Baltimore City and Prince George's County have more outdoor advertisements than does this rural county of 150,000, according to State Highway Administration officials.

The appearance of Carroll's main artery has stirred a spirited debate between residents who call the billboards "litter on a stick" and local merchants who say the signs are the lifeblood of their businesses.

The spat goes beyond highway aesthetics, they say, to a much larger, more divisive issue: development.

"We have made Route 140 look so junky, so unattractive, that it will not attract the kind of high-end retail outlets it deserves," said David P. O'Callaghan, president of the Finksburg Planning Area Council, a residents' group that represents the gateway community.

"I'd like to see the county commissioners consider the elimination of billboards near residential neighborhoods," he said. "I live near a farm that has lots of pine trees, and still my view of the stars is obstructed by billboards."

Signs grandfathered

Under current Carroll County zoning laws, the signs can be erected only in commercial and industrial districts. However, when the county's zoning amendments were passed, those billboards that were in agricultural and residential districts were allowed to remain standing.

That was in 1978, when Route 140 had just one traffic light.

Today there are five lights along the 9-mile stretch from the county line to the eastern edge of Westminster, an area where nearly 90 billboards clamor for motorists' attention.

"Heaven help the person who tries to read them all," said Neil Ridgely, a Finksburg resident and vocal critic of the billboards. "They're very distracting. Quite frankly, those signs are nothing but litter on a stick."

More than 34,000 commuters stream up and down Route 140 each day, outnumbering the vehicles traveling on Baltimore County's York Road by about 9,000, State Highway Administration records show.

And every passer-by represents a potential sale, making billboards the most effective advertising tool for Carroll merchants. The county has no local television affiliate and only one radio station.

"For me, they're a means of survival. The billboards offer us the greater exposure we need," said Harry Sirinakis, owner of Harry's, a popular restaurant on Westminster's Main Street. "All those people going by on the highway, they don't know there's a downtown here, never mind my restaurant."

Compromise sought

Over the past few months, county officials have been meeting with business leaders, billboard operators, the Chamber of Commerce and residents in an attempt to reach a compromise.

"The business community felt our ordinance was working well. They didn't want to see any changes," said George L. Beisser, county zoning administrator, who has met with each group. "The residents, on the other hand, wanted to see the billboards taken down." All 365 of them.

The chances of that happening appear to be slim. After all, this is a county that embraced one of the nation's first, and largest, billboard companies.

The National Advertising Co., founded in 1932 by the late Scott S. Bair Sr., had its roots in the county seat. Bair's son, former Carroll County Commissioner Scott S. Bair Jr., followed his father into the family business.

Few states ban signs

According to Scenic America, a national nonprofit group that tracks sign-control efforts, four states have banned billboards: Hawaii, Alaska, Maine and Vermont.

"Our scenery is one of our strongest marketing tools," said Susan Kruthers, director of travel and tourism for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. "We've found that businesses, given the choice, don't want to go back to billboards. They're regarded as visual pollution."

The Green Mountain state has seen tourism swell by about 50 percent since eliminating billboards in the 1970s, she said.

In Montgomery County, an attempt to force the removal of outdoor advertisements has been tied up in court for 28 years. On the federal level, an effort to pay for the signs' removal did little to change the appearance of the nation's interstates -- the program established by Lady Bird Johnson's Highway Beautification Act of 1965 ran out of money within 15 years.

Those setbacks have done little to discourage local critics, who are pushing for a law that would allow county leaders to assess the value of Carroll's billboards and then tear down -- at no cost to taxpayers -- billboards that have been around for years and paid for themselves.

Billboard operators and business owners oppose the idea. Several say technology may offer a better solution.

"I think we could cut down on the sheer number of billboards by replacing traditional signs with electronic ones -- the kind that change every few minutes," said Sirinakis, the Westminster restaurant owner.

Quipped O'Callaghan: "Then I guess I wouldn't need to see the stars, I could just watch the billboards change colors."

Pub Date: 11/04/98

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