Sidewalk signs trip over city regulations Controversy: Local merchants lure customers with sidewalk advertisements even though the signs have been banned in Baltimore since 1965. Preservationists want the ban enforced.


Local merchants see money in your meandering.

With plywood and paint, they peddle everything from literature to lingerie -- luring passers-by into their shops with smartly designed sidewalk signs.

The problem: The signs are banned in Baltimore. Have been since 1965.

Many business owners know this, but they also know the ban is difficult to enforce. So hundreds of signs remain on display in the heavily traveled tourist areas along the waterfront, irking preservationists who want them removed.

"It's time for the city to lay down the law and enforce it," said Romaine Somerville, executive director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point. "The signs detract from the historic beauty of these neighborhoods."

"We hear that a lot," said Shawn S. Karimian, the city's deputy building inspections chief. "But the fact is, we have one inspector for 70 square miles of city. We're forced to run on a complaint basis only."

Which means that until city officials are notified of a problem with a particular sign, they do nothing.

The random enforcement of the ban has forced communities to deal with the sign issue on their own. In Fells Point, merchants have adopted unspoken rules governing the use of the sidewalk signs.

"Over the years, we've developed our own sign etiquette," said Steve Bunker, owner of China Sea Marine Trading Co. on South Ann Street. "You don't put your sign in front of another person's place, and you don't trespass on other people's property. If you put your sign in front of someone else's store, that's controversial."

But the merchants grant exceptions.

"We tend to look the other way when the owner of a store that's located on a side street puts a sign out on the main road," said Bunker, who is president of the Fells Point Community Organization. "We know they need to draw pedestrians to their shops to survive."

Bagels by the Bay depends on its sign -- a battered piece of plastic with a picture of a bagel floating above water -- to draw passers-by on Thames and Fell streets to the shop on South Ann Street. Construction work on Ann's Wharf hides the store.

"We have a lot of people who come in and tell us they didn't know we were here until they saw the sign," said John Bowen, bagel shop manager. "The sign we have now is in rough shape, but the owner wants us to put it out on the corner anyway. It's that important to our business."

Many of the signs in Fells Point reflect the character of their owners. On Thames Street, a prominent sign for the Waterfront Hotel and Restaurant includes a painting of a schooner that was in port several years ago for the Fells Point Fun Festival.

"It's quite a conversation piece," said Chet Tokarski, restaurant owner. "It was designed by George Kalwa, a local courtroom artist. I think it captures the spirit of Fells Point."

Although most merchants abide by the informal rules of sign etiquette, many residents do not. The city Department of Housing and Community Development receives more than 200 complaints concerning sidewalk signs each year, Karimian said.

One of those grievances led to the demise of the signs in Canton.

A resident called city building inspector Phil Cacano and complained that the signs were obstructing foot traffic in O'Donnell Square, so Cacano swept through the area and ordered merchants to take the signs down.

The penalty for failure to comply: $100 per day. Too high a price to pay, many merchants said. The signs came down.

"I understand why they don't want the signs used in this area," said Ed Scherer, owner of Helen's Garden on the square. "The sidewalks are rather narrow. I just think they should enforce the law more uniformly. The signs are all over the city."

Some merchants say the ban is often used to settle personal squabbles. "If you're mad at your neighbor and he has an illegal sign, you can blow the whistle on him," said Bunker, the Fells Point merchant.

It happened to Bunker years ago, when he was living in Federal Hill. A former merchant marine, he had placed a sign by his door to welcome "Wayward Seamen." His neighbor took a dislike to Bunker. So he called city officials.

"The city inspector came by, took a Polaroid of the sign and sent me a notice," Bunker said. "I didn't pay any attention to it, so he sent me several notices." Bunker took his sign down -- temporarily. The inspector drove by and the complaint was thrown out.

"I put the sign back up," Bunker said. "But I never heard from the inspector again."

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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