City flier ban sought

Bill targets commercial ads left on private property

April 05, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Pizzerias, Chinese restaurants and Realtors would be prohibited from sticking advertisements in doorways and fences in Baltimore under a proposal intended to reduce street clutter that advanced in the City Council last night.

Supporters of the measure, which would ban all commercial fliers, say the glut of menus, coupons and refinancing offers wedged into vestibules is not only unseemly but may also be unsafe if its presence alerts burglars to an empty home.

Among a handful of bills the council is considering this year to address neighborhood quality-of-life issues, the proposed ban draws attention to the frustration many community leaders have expressed over the fliers in recent months.

"They drop them off and we in the community are left to deal with the mess," said Matthew Haag, president of Fells Prospect, a neighborhood group that covers portions of Fells Point and Canton.

All businesses placing commercial material - from dim sum menus to home-electronics circulars - on private property could face a $50 fine if the measure is approved. The 15-member council voted unanimously yesterday, with three abstentions, to send the bill to a final vote.

Introduced last year, the measure stalled for months as its author, Councilman James B. Kraft, sought language that he was comfortable could hold up in court. Similar bans, including one in Baltimore County, have been struck down as unconstitutional.

"You can get one or two of these at your house every day," said Kraft, who represents neighborhoods directly north of the harbor. "If a person is on vacation or someone is sick in the hospital ... it's a sign that they're not home."

An executive with the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, which has fought such proposals in the past, confirmed that the organization has been actively lobbying against the city's most recent incarnation of the ban. She did not rule out suing the city, if necessary.

"This is a way for us to get good information into the hands of folks about what's going on in the real estate market," said Carolyn Cook, the group's deputy executive vice president. "It's an important issue for us to be able to use that as a marketing tool."

Material intended to advertise products or services would be prohibited, but political literature, newspapers and community newsletters would not - a distinction several critics called hypocritical.

Commercial speech is protected by the First Amendment, but courts have ruled that government has the ability to regulate that speech if it can demonstrate that a "substantial interest" would be served.

Other cities, including Chicago, have approved similar ordinances, though they have often been controversial. The idea was last tried in Baltimore in 2001, but the bill died before it reached a vote.

In 1991, the council repealed a 20-year-old ban on the use of leaflets by real-estate agents - a prohibition put in place to combat blockbusting, the practice of stoking fears of racial integration in order to promote panicked home sales.

City Hall officials said that while the law surrounding flier bans is still murky, Kraft's bill has a good chance of standing up to a legal challenge. A memo drafted by the city's law department on the proposal reads, "There are strong arguments to support the constitutionality of the regulation."

Melvin Thompson, vice president of government relations with the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said his group does not have a position on the proposal. He said many successful takeout restaurants are relying less on fliers.

"A lot of takeout places and places that deliver have been ... visiting business offices personally, dropping off free samples, or discount coupons," Thompson said.

But council members who support the proposal said their constituents are being inundated with leaflets, especially in rowhouse neighborhoods where it is easy to distribute fliers quickly. The ban would apply to fences, railings, porches, doors and other areas on private property.

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who represents neighborhoods such as Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill, voted in favor of the ban.

"They get proliferated with trash," Mitchell said shortly after the vote. "We're not trying to be anti-business or anti-free speech, but the bottom line is we're tired of picking up trash."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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