One-year billboard ban is eyed

Commission proposal on new signs in city surprises ad agencies

Bid for middle ground

Moratorium will go before council panel at meeting Wednesday

November 06, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Spurred by a grass-roots movement, the city's planning commission has recommended a 12-month moratorium on new billboards in Baltimore, which advertising companies say could severely hamper their business.

Anti-billboard activists packed a four-hour hearing Thursday night, arguing for an indefinite ban. The 12-month moratorium -- which the City Council land use committee will discuss Wednesday -- was a way for officials to stake out middle ground between activists and billboard businesses.

"There were still some outstanding issues that we thought could be worked out between the companies and the neighborhoods in terms of how we regulate, so we wanted to take more time," said city Planning Director Charles C. Graves III, a commission member.

After one year, the planning commission would recommend to the City Council how best to govern billboards through zoning laws, Graves said.

Three Baltimore-based advertising companies -- Eller Media, PNE Media and Eastern Outdoor -- sent representatives to the meeting, to support a pending City Council bill described as an "honorable compromise with reasonable restrictions" by D. J. Ruggles of Eller Media.

"It increases restrictions, but it's something we can live with," said Ruggles. "It would bring growth at a reasonable rate."

But a planning commission report, which was the basis for the recommended moratorium, said the bill would lead to more clutter along highways and allow some signs to be as high as a seven-story building.

The report also indicated that billboards mar scenic views, especially in the Jones Falls Valley and surrounding neighborhoods, including Hampden and Reservoir Hill.

The commission rejected the industry's position, backing a movement to ban billboards that has been growing over the past year.

If the land-use committee supports a 12-month moratorium, the City Council could vote on it before the end of its term early next month.

Activists said they want to avoid having to repeat their effort should the process extend into the administration of Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley.

"I'm not sure I'm pleased. It's second-best [to a total ban], but it slows them down," said Mary Lou Kline, chair of the Citywide Liquor Coalition, which has led the movement.

Kline and anti-billboard crusaders Sharon Price, Pete Pakus and Michael Beer were among the 40 residents who were prepared to speak out against billboards.

During the hearing, 6th District City Councilman Norman A. Handy Sr., a land-use committee member, said billboards subject Baltimore residents to "eye pollution and invasion of privacy."

Baltimore, with 79 square miles and 657,256 residents, has about 900 billboards, according to the planning commission report -- a number industry officials say is far from extreme. Baltimore County, with 612 square miles and 720,662 residents, has 227 billboards, the report says.

Industry officials said the proposed 12-month moratorium surprised them, and could be a blow to their business. Eller Media, PNE Media and Eastern Outdoor account for almost all Baltimore's billboards.

Their opponents say a yearlong ban would not harm the industry.

Duane E. Tressler of Curtis Bay lamented the signs around his southern Baltimore home. "I'm 45, and I've had to look at signs all my life, since my first steps," he said during the hearing. "We're a neighborhood that gets run over. South has more than its share."

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