Council to consider billboard proposals

Recommendation seeks 12-month ban on new city signs

November 10, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

It began with a challenge to tobacco and liquor advertising on billboards in Baltimore. Now, it has escalated into a campaign against the billboards themselves.

The City Council's land-use committee will hold hearings today and vote on two proposed billboard bills, one sponsored by the advertising industry and another by a growing anti-billboard campaign.

If the City Council decides to support a community backed 12-month ban on new billboards in the city, credit will go to the Baltimore Citywide Liquor Coalition and the Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA), which teamed up in the early 1990s to successfully fight tobacco and liquor advertising on billboards.

"The credit for this momentum is singularly due to the CPHA and the Liquor Coalition," said 6th District City Councilman Norman A. Handy Sr., a land-use committee member who favors a complete ban on new billboards.

"Had it been up to the council, I think it would have been a dead issue," Handy said. He vowed "a valiant effort to secure this bill."

Jim Eatrides of PNE Media, one of three Baltimore-based advertising companies involved in the conflict, sees the liquor coalition and CPHA as "zealots and a well-organized minority."

But billboard opponents say they are trying to preserve the city's skyscape and are determined to see the signs -- which residents say have stolen too many views in scenic and historic areas -- gone for good.

Charles C. Graves III, the city's planning director, said the impact of Baltimore's roughly 900 billboards "has reached dramatic proportions in terms of city size, quality of life, property values, taking away views."

According to the planning commission report that called for the 12-month ban, the city, with 79 square miles and 657,256 residents, has about four times as many billboards as Baltimore County, with 612 square miles and 720,662 residents, which has 227 billboards.

Baltimore was in the vanguard, the country's first city to take a stand stance against tobacco and liquor billboard advertising when it passed laws limiting the signs to interstate highways, business and industrial areas in 1994.

Since then, Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland and Los Angeles have passed statutes with similar language, according to Scenic America, a Washington nonprofit group that monitors billboards.

The city ordinances sparked a court fight that rose to the Supreme Court, which upheld the city's right to restrict or prohibit liquor and tobacco advertising.

That's when Baltimore's billboard busters decided to widen the original focus and go after billboards as a form of intrusive urban eye clutter.

"Once we got through that [Supreme Court] ordeal, we realized there were a lot of illegal billboards," said liquor coalition chair Mary Lou Kline, 61, of Morrell Park.

Other groups also began to target billboards in their neighborhoods. Among them was the Jones Falls Watershed Association, an environmental preservation group headed by retired biophysics professor Michael Beer. Beer and others in the vicinity of Woodberry and Stone Hill lament the fact that the Jones Falls Expressway has 38 billboards in the city.

Beer calls billboards an "insult" to the natural beauty of the Jones Falls' streams and rocks.

The battles against billboards coalesced after neighborhood activists started to recognize each other at zoning board hearings.

"People were independently fighting billboards in their neighborhoods," said Sharon Price, a Hampden resident who became co-chairwoman of the liquor coalition. "We pulled together grass-roots disparate movements to become one organized movement."

Zoning board officials say they have approved only four of 10 new billboard applications this year.

"Every day we wait, they [the industry] are trying to get more billboards," said Kline. "Stop cluttering my world just because you guys want to make another dollar."

PNE Media's Eatrides said the industry bill is a "good-faith effort" to revise the ordinance and resolve some disputes "in a comprehensive way that's fair to everybody." The bill would cut in half spacing between billboards along highways (from 1,500 to 750 feet) and limit billboard height to 75 feet. "We do not have a case of billboard free-for-all in this city. Just the opposite," Eatrides said.

Price disagreed. "If you want a first-class city, there are things you can't compromise on."

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