The proposed ban on new billboards in Baltimore took a significant step forward this week when the City Planning Commission approved the bill intended to preserve the city's appearance.
The 4-1 vote, which came during a packed City Hall hearing late Thursday, set the stage for a swift review by the land use committee and a City Council vote. But it also prompted the city's largest billboard advertiser to threaten to leave town.
"You can bet Eller will relocate its 70 employees out of Baltimore," if the bill becomes law, said Don Scherer, president of Eller Media Co. His company, which owns 500 of the city's 900 billboards, is the largest of three outdoor sign businesses in Baltimore. "Don't kill the industry," Scherer warned after the three-hour hearing.
Scherer urged Mayor Martin O'Malley, who did not attend the hearing, to consider a limit but not a complete ban. "Martin, wake up. You said you're pro-business we're not opposed to capping."
The bill will get another hearing March 1 before the Land Use Committee, chaired by 1st District Councilwoman Lois Garey, who supports the bill. If passed by the committee and the City Council, O'Malley is set to sign it, the mayor's office said yesterday.
City Council President Sheila Dixon told the commission she introduced the bill with 12 co-sponsors, underlining the fast-track the bill is on. It died without a vote at the end of last year's session.
"It's time to look for other avenues of advertising without bombarding the city with [more] billboards," Dixon said yesterday. She predicted the bill would pass the City Council and be "passed on to the mayor for his signature."
Commission chairman Stelios Spiliadis said his support for the measure was influenced by a letter Feb. 3 to city Planning Director Charles C. Graves from M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp.
"The BDC is particularly interested in undergirding tourism, a major growth industry," Brodie wrote, adding that it was important to protect view corridors of hotels and offices from "billboard encroachment."
Billboard opponents argue that the main gateways to Baltimore from Interstate 95 and Russell Street are dotted with billboards.
Ray Foote of Scenic America, a nonprofit conservation organization in Washington, said many residents consider them "sky trash. Ugliness is bad for business."
Many activists who support the ban -- some motivated by recently built signs along the Jones Falls Expressway -- offered spirited testimony at Thursday's hearing.
Michael Beer, a retired biophysics professor, described an 84-foot billboard by the Jones Falls as a "terrible insult" to the volunteers who had pitched in to clean the waterway in recent years.
Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector of the 5th District cast the lone vote against the bill. She said she considered the cure worse than the disease.
A lawyer for Eller, Stanley S. Fine, argued during the hearing, "We are on a freight train in the direction of a permanent ban." He urged the commission to "slow it down. Let's explore other alternatives."
Anti-billboard activists and their lawyers were unmoved.
They say the battle is far from won. "We're feeling optimistic but we're not letting up," said Pete Pakas, special projects director for the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, which supports the bill.