The O'Malley administration retreated yesterday on a proposal that would have forced the removal of 11 billboards along Russell Street - a change designed to assure City Council passage of an urban renewal plan for the Carroll Camden Industrial Area.
After the Baltimore Development Corp. backed away from the billboard amendment, the council gave preliminary approval last night to the renewal plan, which city officials hope will breathe new life into a 500-acre "brownfields" industrial area at the city's southern edge by attracting a fresh generation of businesses to land that could be contaminated.
The purpose of the billboard measure was to make the gateway to the sports stadiums and downtown more inviting to tourists and investors.
But that part of the plan drew fire from the billboard industry. BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie said yesterday that he and Mayor Martin O'Malley discussed the industry's readiness to fight in court and decided to withdraw that element of the bill.
The deciding factor, he said, was a recent decision by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals that gave a billboard company the right to challenge the constitutionality of a billboard ban in Montgomery County.
"After consulting with the city Law Department about the possible outcome of the Montgomery County case, we decided to take out any references to billboards," said Brodie, of the city's quasi-public development agency. "It raises not only questions of money, but basic constitutional questions that could take months or maybe longer to resolve.
"I had no intention of jeopardizing an urban renewal plan in a major area of the city over this issue," he said.
The Maryland billboard company involved in the Montgomery County case, Clear Channel Outdoor, formerly known as Eller Media Co., owns several of the 11 outdoor advertising signs that would have been affected on Russell Street.
In a crowded council hearing late last month, billboard industry lawyers declared that they would challenge the bill in court on constitutional free-speech grounds if the outdoor advertising firms were not compensated millions of dollars in lost income.
"These guys see it as a holy war," Brodie said in an interview last week.
Another point City Council members were concerned about was that the bill had no provision for compensating property owners or small businesses. Ted Kunkel, president of Capitol Cake Co., which leases land to billboard companies, told council members that his bakery warehouse stood to lose a valuable source of income.
Baltimore's billboard wars escalated in the 1990s, when a citywide neighborhood coalition campaigned successfully for a ban on alcohol and tobacco advertising. A streak of wins by the groups was capped in March 2000 with a freeze on further billboard construction - the first bill signed into law by O'Malley.
Even as O'Malley championed beautification programs along major city streets, support by the council for the plan's proposed billboard prohibition was tepid. Yet on the grass-roots level, support was enthusiastic.