Efforts to control the temporary signs that spring up by the hundreds around new developments every weekend have raised constitutional issues and a potential political problem for Baltimore County's elected officials, who don't want to be caught in a fight between developers and community groups.
Community organizations say the directional signs are eyesores. They have joined against attempts to change the county's existing rules, which technically ban advertising on public rights of way. They argue that an exemption for the real estate industry would be special interest legislation at its worst.
The county has largely ignored enforcement of the sign ban on weekends, but the real estate industry and related businesses now want an official change of policy. They've threatened to take their home building elsewhere if they don't get what they want.
The county planning board studied the issue for six months at the County Council's request but failed two weeks ago to come up with a recommendation within its 180-day deadline.
That means the council can take up the issue again, but the lawmakers are reluctant to do it unless a compromise has been worked out.
Meanwhile, the county's law office has told the planning board that a proposal before it to give the real estate industry a limited exemption from the sign ban could be unconstitutional because it does not apply to all businesses.
"I find it unusual that the planning board has not come up with a compromise," said Councilman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, who introduced the resolution asking for the planning board study.
"It would make more sense for the board to continue trying to find a compromise before it comes back to us. After all, that is the board's role."
If the planning board can't reach a consensus, he said, "then I'm sure the council couldn't either."
"There has to be a way to find a solution to this that is fundamentally fair to both sides," added Council Chairman Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-3rd.
But the council may have to confront the issue directly. Tom Carski, president of the Baltimore County Chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said the industry is now likely to bypass the planning board and lobby the council for direct action.
Doug Behr, a board member of the Greater Kingsville Civic Association, said he doesn't see how a compromise can be reached, either. He said he thought the constitutional questions had brought the issue to a dead end.
Some elected officials agreed.
"I'm very concerned about the constitutional problems with the regulations being proposed," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, D-5th, who said he gets many complaints from residents in the White Marsh and Perry Hall areas, where development in the northeastern part of the county is concentrated.
Proposed legislation drawn up by the Office of Zoning Administration would limit the number of directional signs for any development to 36 within a three-mile radius. It would allow the signs to be displayed only between 4 p.m. Fridays and 11:59 p.m. Sundays.
It would also require that homebuilders provide zoning officials with a map showing the locations of their signs to aid enforcement.
The proposal would make law out of a policy that has been in effect for the last 30 years.
That policy allowed the real estate signs on county property and county rights of way, even though regulations officially prohibit them.
But the county Office of Law told a planning board committee that the proposal would violate the equal protection amendment of the Constitution by allowing one industry to put up signs and denying that right to others.
The committee recommended that the council deal with the legal problem first, and if it could work out a solution to that, limit the number of signs to six for each development.
"I think the committee made a good faith attempt to come up with a reasonable compromise," said board member Stephen H. Lafferty, who chaired the committee.
But acting board Chairman I. William Chase threw out the committee's report on a technicality, and by a 6-6 tie vote, the board rejected another proposal that would have left the existing regulations intact -- effectively continuing the sign ban. The issue is still before the board.
"It looks like a more heated subject than the council first thought," Mr. Riley said.