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Balto. County officials, church clash over proposed sign on I-695

As Trinity Assembly of God Church sees it, the sign would be a guiding light on the Baltimore Beltway, steering parishioners - hundreds of them every Sunday - to the huge sanctuary on Joppa Road.

As Baltimore County and nearby community groups see it, a 25-foot-high, 250-square-foot electronic sign - four times higher and 10 times bigger than regulations allow - at Trinity's prominent spot where Interstate 83 meets Interstate 695 would be a harbinger of highway doom.

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Trinity's request for the zoning variance it would need to erect the sign was denied last year, but the church has appealed the decision. Members of the county Board of Appeals heard two days of testimony last month and will hear a third day in December.

County officials and community activists imagine that if the church gets the variances it would need, every other church and school along the county's relatively sign-free highways would want one, too - leading to garish visual clutter and accidents by the score as motorists get distracted by messages advertising the next church concert or blood drive.

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"It seems so foreign to everything else that's out there," said Rick Huether, president of the community association in Sunset Knoll, diagonally across Joppa Road from the church.

"The biggest concern is, if Trinity would get this, then the 10 institutions between Towson Methodist and the Jewish community churches that are right on the Beltway, why wouldn't they put up the same thing?"

Attorney C. William Clark, who is representing the church, said it needs a sign to let eastbound motorists know the identity of the big church by the side of the road and how to get there. The changeable portion would offer inspirational or religious messages or advertise services and events.

"People know there's a big church there, but they don't know which church it is," Clark said.

He added that trees the Maryland State Highway Administration planted along the side of the road make the current 6-foot-high, 24-square-foot sign nearly invisible to motorists.

Baltimore County Community Planning Director Jeff Long said the county takes a dim view of signs along its highways for aesthetic and safety reasons and is particularly opposed to Trinity's plan for a changeable-copy sign in that spot.

Motorists merging from I-83 north onto the Beltway find themselves in a complex lane-switch with drivers heading east, he said.

"The driver is particularly challenged at that location on 695, and we don't want to add anything that would distract a driver," Long said.

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"The State Highway Administration over the next several years will be providing additional informational signage that will announce lane changes, so we wouldn't want an advertising sign to compete with signs that are conveying a very important message."

To counter that argument, Trinity brought in R. James Claus, an expert who has testified before Congress on highway sign theory, who told the Board of Appeals that the speed motorists are traveling at that spot is the precise reason the sign needs to be so large.

If the letters on the sign are big enough, he said, motorists will not have to strain to read them and won't be distracted.

"The protestants' objections are not based on any study but based on their suppositions and their concerns that it could cause a traffic problem," Clark said.

"All anyone really has to do is look at the Pepsi-Cola sign on I-83 going downtown. I doubt seriously there has been any accident caused by the Pepsi-Cola sign."


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