Business owners to fight limits on electronic signs

November 04, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,

Baltimore County business owners emerged from a County Council meeting last night vowing to fight a decision to restrict the use of electronic billboards that display advertising.

A divided council voted, 4-3, to force businesses to alter the text or images on so-called "changeable copy signs" no more than once every 15 seconds and barred them from having the signs flash, blink, oscillate, scroll or show animated pictures.

The business owners had advocated text-change intervals of three seconds because, they argued, it is the only way to catch the attention of drivers going by.

"This doesn't work for us," said Harry S. Cohen, owner of the Firehouse Tavern in Carney. "If you're going to change it once every 15 seconds, you might as well leave it up there all day. We're not going to settle for this. It's not a done issue."

Cohen and other businessmen who attended the meeting complained that the county had exempted itself from the regulation, leaving libraries, schools and other county-run facilities free to use their digital signs as they wish.

In response, Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz posed a question after the meeting: "What does that have to do with a commercial billboard? The county isn't flashing information that Ajax is three for a dollar, but these businesses are."

It was Kamenetz who proposed updating a 1997 law to take into account new electronic technology in such signs. He suggested that text in the billboards change no more often than once every half-hour, and he - along with council members Kenneth Oliver and T. Bryan McIntire - voted against the amendment last night that stipulated the 15-second interval.

The concern behind the law - which takes effect in 45 days - is that such rapidly moving signs are distracting to drivers, as well as ugly. It covers only signs that can be seen from roadways.

Keith Scott, president of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, said the business community will "have to provide a stronger case" for allowing the signs to flash at shorter intervals.

"Fifteen seconds is certainly better than 30 minutes," he conceded. "But we wanted three seconds. Small businesses are trying to get their message out, and in order to do that you need three seconds. And you need scrolling."

Todd Huff, operations manager for Brooks-Huff Tire & Auto Centers, said new digital signs at the company's outlets in Towson and Hunt Valley had cost more than $40,000 each. "I can live with the 15 seconds," he said. "What I'm more upset about is the zero flashing, so it ends up being a stagnant message sitting there for 15 seconds."

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