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Baltimore officials approve law opening the door for digital signs downtown

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott signed a bill creating a special sign district in downtown Baltimore — the first step in a process that may pave the way for digital and video signage in the heart of the city.

Baltimore City Council members voted unanimously Monday evening in favor of the plan, which offers no specific vision for such signs but creates the boundaries of a district in which new signs may be allowed. The district would be bound largely by Howard Street to the west, Baltimore Street to the north, President Street to the east and Pratt Street to the south. The district would continue south to Conway Street along the Inner Harbor.

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Scott signed the bill Tuesday afternoon.

Council members did not discuss the bill Monday but briefly discussed it during a meeting of the board’s Ways and Means Committee earlier this month. There, Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said she hopes new signage downtown would add “vibrancy” to a district that could “use a little love.”

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Stokes said she was hopeful an “outdoor media power project” could “create and spark vitality in this area.”

Exactly what downtown boosters envision for the signs, however, has yet to be revealed. A sign plan still must be submitted to the city’s planning commission and approved before additional signage can be placed in the district.

Colin Tarbert, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., argued in a written statement that the sign district would create opportunities for locally owned small businesses, including minority- and women-owned businesses.

New billboards have been banned citywide in Baltimore since 2000 when then Mayor Martin O’Malley signed a bill capping the city’s billboard count at 900.

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The public was not permitted to speak during Monday night’s City Council meeting, and no one spoke out for or against the sign district during the committee meeting earlier this month. However two residents of the Towers at Harbor Court Condominium published an op-ed Monday in The Baltimore Sun opposing the plan.

The pair argued that digital billboards would be disruptive to drivers and birds. Such signage also would create light pollution, they argued, which has been linked to several disorders including depression, anxiety and obesity.

In a report prepared in response to the legislation, the city’s planning department said the sign designation would not increase traffic congestion or add distraction for drivers.

“Downtown Baltimore has a lot of existing traffic, and the presence of large billboards will not increase the amount of traffic congestion,” planners wrote.

Planners also said the designation would not add to the “visual clutter” downtown. Architectural concerns could be addressed using the city’s architectural standards when more specific plans are presented, planners argued.

“Having digital billboards and special signing is quite congruous with the neighborhood and with a downtown business district that the (sic) Baltimore wants to have,” planners wrote

Baltimore City Council fast-tracked the sign district legislation Monday, taking second and final votes on the measure on the same night.

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