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Beautifying Balto. Co. is a sign of the times


William Grose's bull has been beaten up, stolen and dropped into a swimming pool, but its demise may come not from vandals but from bureaucrats.

The black fiberglass bovine that stands on the roof of his Butcher's Barn meat store in Parkville would be outlawed under proposals to beautify Baltimore County by toughening the local sign ordinance.

Many business owners complain that new regulations would cost too much money and rob landmarks of their identity. "We're known as the place with the cow on it," Mr. Grose says.

But residents, tired of the visual assault inflicted by all the signs, streamers and symbols that clutter the commercial corridors, are demanding change.

"I find York Road disgusting. Towson itself is a blot," says Judith Berger, president of the Liberty Road Community Council.

Other Baltimore-area localities have tried limiting signs.

Annapolis, for example, has fought to ban neon signs; Baltimore has pushed to curb billboards. The Baltimore County Council, meanwhile, is considering one of the strictest sign regulations in the area, one that would give businesses 10 years to comply or face citations and fines.

Proposed county regulations would reduce the number of free-standing signs at businesses and shopping centers from three to one, prohibit new billboards unless an old one is torn down and eliminate the pennants and streamers fancied by car dealerships.

4 And no sign could extend above a business' roof.

That means that signs on local landmarks such as the Bel-Loc Diner in Parkville and the Double T Diner in Catonsville would be illegal. The smiling red foxes that perch above Fox auto dealerships in the county would have to come down. And Mr. Grose's bull, which has stood for 25 years overlooking Joppa Road, would be put out to pasture.

Bel-Loc owner Bill Doxanas doesn't think the distinctive red neon sign that has decorated his restaurant since 1964 contributes to visual clutter on Joppa Road. "It's another example of the government sticking in where they shouldn't," he says of the proposed ordinance.

Removing the diner's sign would be expensive because it is attached to the building and hides air conditioning ducts, Mr. Doxanas says. But mainly, he hates to lose a piece of the diner's old-fashioned decor.

"It's nostalgia," he says.

Community groups, however, charge that the business owners have gone to extremes to lure customers. Signs are too plentiful and too big, they say.

"There are so many signs you can't read them all," says Wayne Skinner of the Towson/Loch Raven Community Council. "It doesn't present a very good picture."

"The advertising has been overdone," adds Mary Ginn, a community activist who served on an advisory committee that helped prepare the proposed regulations.

Even business leaders agree that the county sign ordinance is woefully outdated. It was written in 1955 -- before fast-food restaurants had drive-through menu boards, before car dealerships began representing different franchises and before gas stations were forced to list gasoline prices for motorists.

Because of the law's inadequacies, many businesses must apply for variances to erect the signs they need.

"We want to reduce sign clutter along the commercial corridors and still allow businesses the signage they need without the delay of costly special hearings," says county planner Hillorie Richman Morrison.

But the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, while acknowledging that the current sign law needs to be improved, says the recommendations being considered by the council are seriously flawed.

"The current proposal is unrealistic and doesn't recognize the investment that business make in their signage," says Stuart Kaplow, chairman of the chamber's public affairs committee.

Fred Lauer, director of government affairs at Penn Advertising of Baltimore, which maintains more than 140 billboards in the county, says planners haven't considered the economic impact of the changes.

Not only would businesses face the expense of replacing signs, but under state law, the county also would have to compensate the billboard company for some of the banned billboards, he says.

Some businesses, however, generally support the recommendations.

Stephen Winter, a lawyer representing the Maryland New Car Dealers Association, says his clients are reasonably satisfied with the proposals, which provide more flexibility than the current law. Stanley Fine, a lawyer representing McDonald's restaurants in the county, says "overall the group has done a good job."

Baltimore County has tried several times since 1968 to overhaul the sign law, and each time failed. Some people question whether council members will have the nerve to make substantial changes this time.

"It would be a miscarriage of justice if county government allowed special interest groups to defeat the legislation," says Ella White Campbell, executive director of the Liberty Road Community Council.

But Council Chairman Vincent J. Gardina is confident that the council will act on the proposals this fall.

"The general consensus is something needs to be done to clean up the sign problem," he says. "The problem is we don't want to be overburdening on existing businesses. . . . We don't want to drive business away."

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