Council targets billboards at city's southern gateway


Advertising billboards in the downtown area near Interstate 95 and Baltimore's baseball and football stadiums give an unsightly first impression of the city, the president of Baltimore Development Corp. said yesterday at a packed City Council meeting on a proposal to ban the signs.

A Carroll Camden Urban Renewal Plan being considered by the council's Urban and Governmental Affairs Committee includes an amendment that would eliminate 11 billboards in the approach into the city from Annapolis and Washington, all on the industrial corridor of Russell Street.

It has energized a defense by Baltimore's small but vocal billboard industry, which lost a lengthy battle several years ago over a city ban on liquor and tobacco billboard advertising.

Proponents are quick to point out that the measure would provide a five-year period for companies to comply in the designated area, after which the city would pay a fair market price to compensate for removal.

Calling Russell Street the "prime gateway" for sports fans and airport travelers, development agency President M.J. "Jay" Brodie, said the city has one chance for a good first impression.

But Clear Channel Outdoor, formerly known as Eller Media Co., and other billboard businesses are determined to take the matter to court. They were heartened by a Court of Special Appeals ruling Wednesday that Clear Channel has the right to challenge the constitutionality of a Montgomery County sign ban. Stanley S. Fine, a lawyer for Clear Channel, said yesterday that if the legislation is passed, companies should receive millions of dollars in compensation, more than under the state formula for fair market value.

City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. said he would meet the billboard companies in court to defend removal of the signs.

"I'm sure they're going to bring suit, but this is weighing the priorities of community, business and their First Amendment right," he said. "I can argue there should be time-and-place restrictions."

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