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Baltimore City Council should vote ‘no’ to towering billboards | COMMENTARY

An electronic billboard near M&T Bank Stadium. The City Council is considering allowing more billboards in the city after a more than two-decade ban.
An electronic billboard near M&T Bank Stadium. The City Council is considering allowing more billboards in the city after a more than two-decade ban. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

Like thousands of other Baltimore residents, I frequently visit the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. Despite the number of times I have watched the video about the events of 1814 followed by the dramatic unveiling of the American flag flying over the fort, I am still moved.

There are other Baltimore places and traditions that make me proud to call Baltimore my home — the Inner Harbor, the National Aquarium, the Ravens, the Orioles, our St. Patrick’s Day parade and stoop sitting with my neighbors. Our lists may vary, but what we have in common is our love for Baltimore. While Baltimore has moved from less factory and dock work to more technology and services work, we have managed to balance development and commercialization with the needs of our neighborhoods.

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That’s why I’m against a proposed city ordinance that would permit massive, ugly, towering billboards adjacent to our neighborhoods that are close to rail and interstate property. This bill would authorize new interstate signage in a variety of locations in Baltimore City, especially south and East Baltimore. The signs could be located every 500 feet along miles of rail track and reach 90 feet into the air in certain areas with elevated highways.

I am not the only one that opposes this ordinance. On Oct. 1, the Baltimore City Planning Commission conducted a hearing on this bill and, after reviewing extensive written and oral testimony, voted 7-2 not to support it. Although Pacific Outdoor Advertising, the New Jersey-based company advocating for this ordinance, said it is planning to erect only 20 to 25 digital billboards, the ordinance would allow vastly more with little recourse for future restraints. In support of the bill, Pacific Outdoor Advertising declared at the planning commission hearing that the signs are restricted to railroad property. However, in Baltimore, railroad property snakes through the city and is adjacent to residential neighborhoods, parks and sports fields. In some areas, the railroad property is within a few yards of where residents live and raise families.

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Authorizing massive advertising signage within yards of our city’s row homes, parks and sports fields is the antithesis of what we need to do to improve the aesthetics and livability of this great city. Some proponents say we need another billboard company to offset the near monopoly Clear Channel has on existing billboards throughout the city. That line of thinking is like saying we need another incinerator and giant smokestack because Wheelabrator Baltimore has a monopoly on the only incinerator in town. This line of reasoning is, well, rubbish.

Another argument is Baltimore needs the revenue that would be generated from the billboards. The planning commission estimated that the city would receive approximately $10,000 per sign or $250,000 from the 20 to 25 signs that Pacific Outdoor Advertising says they are considering. It could bring in $400,000 to $500,000 if the billboards are double-sided. While this revenue is not de minimis, it would be a paltry addition to our $3 billion operating budget. Baltimore currently has a moratorium on new billboards due to legislation passed in 1999 to halt the proliferation of billboards throughout our city. This ordinance would reverse 21 years of progress, create visible clutter and devalue the efforts of volunteers to beautify our communities.

People who may wish to live in, move to, or do business with Baltimore are influenced by our visual representation. An abundance of billboards projects an image of urban blight and fosters the perception that Baltimore is less than the vibrant and dynamic “city of neighborhoods” we know it to be. Baltimore residents value our unique blend of modern, urban lifestyle elements with our historic, small-town charm. Adding towering advertising to our communities diminishes the appeal of our outdoor spaces, lowers property values and would potentially drive people out of the city.

Once started, this downward spiral will be hard to reverse. I strongly urge the City Council to vote against this legislation in order to preserve the beauty, tranquility and integrity of our neighborhoods.

John Paré (johngpare@gmail.com) is president of the Riverside Neighborhood Association.

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