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News boxes criticized as clutter; Officials decry abundance of racks on downtown streets; Sidewalk space affected; Controls not easy because of risks of censorship, lawsuits


Residents of downtown Annapolis have long hated those newspaper racks and boxes of free publications, those perceived insidious eyesores that clutter their beautiful historic district.

Like mushrooms, they pop up. Three, five, 22 in a row on the city's narrow sidewalks. Last summer, Alderman Louise Hammond, a Ward 1 Democrat who represents downtown, was so frustrated that she counted all the boxes within the city dock area.

She counted 98. In an area just about the size of three city blocks.

"There's not a lot of sidewalk space as it is," said W. Minor Carter, president of the Ward One Residents Association. "And do you need that many? Certainly, you would think you can go five paces without a newspaper stand."

In 1995, newspaper and publication distributors signed a voluntary agreement with city officials to use dark-brown boxes along newly renovated Main Street. Distributors also agreed not to attach boxes to lamp posts and other public property.

The agreement has worked so well in bringing uniformity to the boxes on Main Street that Hammond and Mayor Dean L. Johnson are contemplating asking distributors to extend the agreement to other parts of the historic district, including the area surrounding the $62 million Anne Arundel County Circuit Court House expected to be completed in the fall.

"It's not just the numbers" of boxes, Johnson said. "It's the way they look in a row -- tall ones, short ones, skinny ones, blue ones. It makes us look like a tacky town with no sense of quality, no sense of style."

Controlling box proliferation hasn't been easy because of the risks of trampling the publications' First Amendment rights and prompting litigation.

In 1993, a U.S. District judge found that a Boston community's 1991 ban of newspaper boxes violated the First Amendment.

A federal appellate court ruled in 1996 that the ban did not violate free speech rights, because it was designed to tidy up sidewalks -- not silence the newspapers.

Suit against San Francisco

Attempts by other cities to regulate the boxes have inspired litigation. Last month, six newspapers sued San Francisco officials who had voted to replace 12,000 independently operated news racks with 1,000 designated pedestal stands.

The lawsuit alleges that the city's plan is unconstitutional because it gives officials "unfettered discretion to decide whether and where newspapers may be distributed."

Annapolitans argue that they are not targeting newspapers.

"We're not concerned with the legitimate newspapers like The Sun or the [Washington] Post," Hammond said. "It's the junk that's out there, the ones that have apartments for rent, homes for sale, computers. They have no business having their boxes out on our street. They're not news.

"Next, you're going to have Hecht's and Nordstrom setting up boxes on the city dock."

An especially sore spot for Hammond is the wall of Market Place near the city dock that faces Middleton Tavern. The wall is lined with 22 boxes of varying sizes and colors, including bright yellow and red.

In addition to newspapers, the boxes hold free publications such as Baltimore's City Paper, the Homebuyer's Journal, Auto Guide and Computer User.

"A lot of times, these are empty, and people just throw trash in them," Hammond complained. "Or people set their beer bottles on them."

'Infrequent publishers'

Alice Neff Lucan, a lawyer who represents USA Today and who worked with Annapolis officials on the 1995 agreement, said that the problem doesn't lie so much with daily newspapers as with "infrequent publishers."

"The frequent publishers like daily or weekly newspapers have a full-time staff who visit their machines daily or a couple of times a week because they have to," she said. "Readers are looking for those newspapers very frequently. Infrequent publishers are out there twice a month, maybe, and that might be generous. So that means if they've got maintenance or service problems, they may not know about it. And by then it's filled with empty Coke bottles."

John Mercer, single-copy manager in the distribution department of The Baltimore Sun, said he had not heard about Annapolis officials considering an expansion of the Main Street agreement. He said requirements such as using uniform brown boxes are tough on newspapers such as The Sun, which sells 20 percent of its newspapers through racks.

Confusing customers

"It can get somewhat confusing when you walk up to a bunch of racks and you try to distinguish which is which, and you're not sure," Mercer said. "I can just envision customers walking up and you're half asleep in the morning, and you plop your money in the wrong rack and, voila, you have the wrong newspaper.

"But if that's what the city wants, we'll certainly work with them."

He added, "Personally, I can think of a better color than brown. I don't know who picked that color."

Planners are asked to meet

City residents and officials aren't the only people calling for uniform boxes along Main Street. Jerome W. Klasmeier, county administrative officer, has invited Annapolis planners to meet on Tuesday and discuss what can be done about the row of 19 boxes on the Church Circle sidewalk outside the construction fence around the new circuit courthouse.

"We're not against vending newspapers," Klasmeier said. "But that's going to be such a beautiful block with the new courthouse, and there is some concern about how the boxes would detract from the overall aesthetics of the site. One of the ideas is, maybe we could sell newspapers inside the courthouse."

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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