O'Malley signs his first bill into law, prohibits construction of billboards; Industry has threatened to challenge law in court

Making much of the occasion by distributing fountain pens in a crowded ceremonial room, Mayor Martin O'Malley signed his first bill into law yesterday, making it illegal to build billboards in Baltimore.

The ban on billboard construction, passed by the City Council a month ago, was hailed by neighborhood activists as a victory over the billboard industry. The bill freezes the number of billboards in Baltimore at about 900.


Although billboard companies have threatened to take the city to court over the legislation, it was not clear yesterday whether they would. Fred Lauer, lawyer for PNE Media, said, "I don't think we know at this time."

O'Malley said, "I don't see [the ban] as a gray issue. It's within our power." He said the revenue the city stands to lose is minimal.


Baltimore joins Annapolis, Rockville and Ocean City as state jurisdictions that have banned new billboards. Some affluent enclaves such as Palm Springs, Calif., Boulder and Aspen, Colo., also have banned them. Rhode Island is the only state that has banned new billboards, although Missouri residents will vote on the issue this fall. Four states -- Vermont, Maine, Alaska and Hawaii -- prohibit billboards.

Baltimore and Houston are two of the few large cities that have succeeded in installing such a ban, according to Scenic America, a nonprofit conservation group in Washington. "Billboards are the only [advertising] you can't turn off," said Mary Houser, Scenic America spokeswoman.

The ban took a great deal of political effort on the part of a citywide grass-roots network that grew over the past few years, bringing together northern and southern Baltimore activists, such as Mary Lou Kline and Michael Beer, and a 12-year-old schoolgirl, Delancey Nelson.

Beer, a retired physics professor, brought his "celebratory" red hat to yesterday's signing. Kline, a Morrell Park grandmother, said, "We worked long and hard." She and others expressed relief at not having to go to the zoning board to oppose another billboard.

However, Kline added, she's "still stuck with the Budweiser sign" near her home.

She is chairwoman of the Citywide Liquor Coalition, which joined the Citizens Planning and Housing Association to lead resistance to new billboards, particularly along the Jones Falls Expressway.

"I've never seen so many diverse people working on the same side," said Terry Hickey, who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Law. Speaking of lawsuits, he added, "Let 'em take their best shot. The community won."

First District Councilwoman Lois Garey, chairwoman of the land-use committee, said, "What a win. What a bill to be the first one for [the mayor] to sign."