Carroll approves law reducing size of billboards

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a move they described as a stopgap solution, Carroll County commissioners passed a law yesterday that sharply reduces the maximum size for billboards across the county.

The new law reduces the maximum height for new billboards from 30 feet to 10 feet and the maximum square footage from 380 square feet to 32 square feet. All proposals for new billboards will be subject to review at public meetings, though the county's almost 400 existing billboards won't be affected.

The commissioners said they passed the tougher restrictions to stem a recent influx of large billboards, which have drawn criticism from community groups in Finksburg, Eldersburg and Union Mills. But they said yesterday's vote was not their final word on the issue.

"I don't see this as a final answer," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich. "It looked like we were going to be hit with an avalanche of applications, so we had to do something. ... But I think there's a place for some kind of billboarding in this county."

Minnich's words pleased billboard industry representatives, who say the new restrictions are among the toughest they have seen and will make it hard for local businesses to advertise effectively.

"Our ultimate goal is to get back with them and county staff and work toward a compromise," said Mark Gamble of Next Media, one of several large billboard companies with interests in Carroll. "The sizes we're talking about don't make for an effective form of advertising for anybody."

With the new restrictions, Carroll joined hundreds of municipalities around Maryland and the nation that have waged war on billboards. Carroll residents have called for a crackdown for years, saying the barrage of fast food and movie advertisements along major roads obscures the county's rural charm.

But Carroll has lagged behind other counties in the Baltimore area in combating billboards. Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County don't allow new billboard sites. Baltimore County has limited the number to about 230. And Howard County doesn't allow the signs to remain up for more than a year in the same location.

Among Maryland municipalities, only Baltimore and Prince George's County have more billboards than Carroll. The commissioners said that in the next few weeks they would appoint a committee to review the billboard laws and develop a plan to beautify entry points into the county. They said they plan to appoint at least one industry representative to that panel.

"This is something that we can work on together and find some sort of diplomatic way to do it," said Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr.

Though the commissioners had promised to consider billboard reform when they took office, they did not plan to address the issue until later this year. But angry residents bombarded the county with complaints last month, after new signs appeared along several stretches of rural road. One 380-square-foot sign went up directly across the street from a Union Mills couple's home.

After hearing the spate of complaints, the commissioners quickly moved forward on the tougher restrictions.

In other action yesterday, the commissioners voted to add a financial hardship clause to the county's current growth freeze, scheduled to remain in effect for the next 10 months.

The clause allows financially strapped landowners and developers to petition the commissioners for exemptions to the freeze.

The landowner would have to provide full financial records and examples of hardship, such as foreclosure notices or medical bills. The landowner also would have to demonstrate that the hardship could be relieved only through development.

The commissioners have the power to grant or deny an exemption.

The growth freeze closed the door to all new subdivision plans covered by the county's adequate-facilities laws, which are designed to prevent residential growth from overwhelming schools, roads and the water supply. It also halted plans for about 1,700 lots that had passed earlier stages in the county's review process.

The freeze does not apply to developments of three or fewer lots, developments in the county's towns or developments that have been approved by the county Planning Commission.

The freeze also includes exemption clauses for senior housing and assisted living facilities. The commissioners have granted an exemption for the Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville and are scheduled to hold exemption hearings for several other retirement and assisted-living facilities Thursday.

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