Residents in Carroll wage fight over signs

County commissioners are considering proposal to limit size of billboards

July 22, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Vicki Serig used to love sitting with a book and throwing open the bedroom drapes in her Carroll County home so she could look at the green sloping fields and little red barn across the road.

But now, when she opens those curtains, she sees 380 square feet of metal on top of a fat red pole. Serig and her husband, Troy, are neighbors with a billboard.

The Serigs moved to Union Mills four years ago in search of a perfect country setting. And they had found it, until about two weeks ago when they came home from work to find trees and bushes across Route 97 gone and the 20-foot-tall metal pole in place.

The Serigs didn't stand idly by. They mobilized neighbors and complained to anybody they could find in county government. Their protests caught the right ears.

After years of tentative talk about passing billboard restrictions, Carroll leaders proposed a measure two weeks ago that would significantly reduce the size limits for outdoor advertisements in the county. If the county commissioners pass the restrictions after a public hearing in a few weeks, Carroll would join hundreds of municipalities around Maryland and the nation that have waged war on billboards.

"This action was public-driven," said Carroll Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.

The proposed changes - which would reduce the maximum permitted square footage from 380 to 32 - would not help the Serigs, because the billboard that looms near their house violates no existing laws. But Vicki Serig said she is glad she started the revolt.

Carroll residents have called for a crackdown on billboards for years, saying the barrage of fast-food and movie advertisements along major roads obscures the county's bucolic charm. But Carroll has lagged behind other counties in the Baltimore area in combating billboards. Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County don't allow new billboards. Baltimore County has capped the number at about 230. And Howard County doesn't allow the signs to remain up for more than a year.

Among Maryland municipalities, only Baltimore and Prince George's County have more billboards than Carroll, which has almost 400.

"Billboards are basically sky trash," said Meg Maguire, president of Scenic America, a Washington-based nonprofit group that battles the large signs.

Maguire argued that with travel information more widely available than ever, billboards are no longer necessary.

Industry executives say billboards serve a valuable function for businesses and consumers.

"Billboards are effective, they are efficient, and they provide a service to the motoring public," said Myron Laible, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. "It's a medium that's particularly important to small local businesses."

Laible said the proposed restrictions in Carroll are "totally inconsistent with our view of the standard in the advertising industry."

Motorists wouldn't be able to see 32-square-foot signs, added Joseph Kunigonis, real estate and public affairs manager for Clear Channel, a national media company that owns a majority of the billboards in Carroll County. "And that can really have a negative impact on local businesses."

Clear Channel did not erect the sign that offends the Serigs and their neighbors, and Kunigonis said the company generally avoids building in residential areas.

County leaders had never staked a clear position in the billboard debate before the commissioners' proposal two weeks ago.

Last year, a committee appointed to investigate the issue recommended a moratorium on new billboards, but the then-commissioners said such a ban would choke free-market practices. The current board of commissioners promised action after taking office but said billboards would take a back seat to growth issues.

That changed after the commissioners received more than 30 complaints in one week from the Serigs, their neighbors and residents in Eldersburg and Finksburg.

The commissioners have said the restrictions would be a temporary solution while they consider more lasting changes to the way the county deals with billboards and other aesthetic issues.

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