City Council approves ban on constructing billboards

Final passage likely, but industry may sue

March 07, 2000|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

After a long political passage, a bill to ban new billboard construction in the city won the strong approval of the City Council yesterday.

Next week, the council is scheduled to vote again on the measure, as a matter of protocol, and is expected to pass the bill a second time. Mayor Martin O'Malley has said he would sign it into law.

Because the council rarely overturns itself, the result was hailed as a hard-won victory by several neighborhood activists.

"I'm stunned, exhilarated into speechlessness," said Sharon Price, a Hampden resident who has spoken against billboard construction along the Jones Falls Expressway, near her home.

The bill, shepherded by 1st District Councilwoman Lois A. Garey, narrowly failed to make it to the council floor last year. During the past two years, however, the issue has become such a citywide cause that its reintroduction was regarded as inevitable by both sides. It passed yesterday with two abstentions from the 19-member council.

The battle may land in court. Garey said that billboard officials told her yesterday they would sue to block the ban. "We're going to get sued," Garey predicted. "Litigation has been threatened."

After the vote, billboard industry lawyers Stanley S. Fine and Fred M. Lauer said it would be "premature" to discuss a possible lawsuit. They plan to try to persuade council members this week to back a "cap and replace" program for Baltimore's 900 billboards instead of an outright ban on all new outdoor advertising.

In a City Hall hearing last week, Eller Media Co. President Don Scherer characterized the proposal -- to limit the number of billboards and replace each one taken down with one in a different site -- as a major, unheard-of concession by the industry.

Their proposal has been roundly rejected by supporters of the ban on new billboards. Sandy Sparks, executive director of the Midtown Community Benefits District, said the result would be illuminated superstructures, which, she said, "would all end in the Jones Falls Valley," along Interstate 83. Baltimore has been criticized by residents and visitors for having a lot of visual clutter on its major roadways.

High-ranking city officials also have sided recently with the anti-billboard movement. M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., said the current billboard status "causes blight and undermines the quality of life." Brodie also noted in a March 1 letter to Garey that tourism could suffer if billboards encroach on scenic views.

Garey and Council President Sheila Dixon, allies on this issue, have said that 900 billboards are enough for one city. The city, with 79 square miles, has about four times as many billboards as Baltimore County, with 612 square miles and 227 billboards. In her comments yesterday, Garey noted that Annapolis, San Diego, and Durham, N.C., have bans on new billboards.

Garey said she plans to meet with the city solicitor to review the bill and its legal ramifications

Dixon said the bill is a sequel to Baltimore's landmark ban on tobacco and liquor billboard advertising. Baltimore was the nation's first city to take such a stand when it passed laws limiting the signs to interstate highways, business and industrial areas in 1994.

The Supreme Court upheld the city's right to restrict or prohibit the advertising.

"They are interrelated struggles," Dixon said, adding that years ago she participated in unfruitful negotiations with the outdoor advertising industry. "We could not get them to agree to a cap."

Yesterday, neighborhood representatives savored their success.

"We've got a bill that's grass roots as far as neighborhoods are concerned," said Pete Pakas of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, which has orchestrated the effort. He said a meeting of an "umbrella round table" before yesterday's vote revealed the depth of neighborhood zeal for the ban.

Garey, the land use committee chairwoman, urged them not to let up. "Keep up the heat," she said. "Don't assume anything."

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