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City Council President Brandon Scott pulls back on bill seeking to add billboards after fierce community opposition

Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott has pulled back a bill that the council’s land use committee was scheduled to consider Wednesday that would have allowed the city to add more digital billboards in certain areas.

The proposal received fierce pushback from several neighborhood associations situated near the potential signage sites.

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The ordinance would have amended the existing zoning code to expand billboard placement “within a railroad right-of-way or within a railroad facility that adjoins a railroad right-of-way,” and let them be visible and adjacent to an interstate highway. The language of the now-defunct legislation would prohibit billboards from standing within 500 feet of one another on the same side of the road and capped their height at 50 feet above the grade of an adjacent highway.

Neighborhood committees mobilized residents against the proposal, saying such signs would erode Baltimore’s image as a “city of neighborhoods” and disproportionately impact communities in the city’s south and east sides.

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Scott, who is favored to win next month’s mayoral race, was the bill’s lead sponsor. The Democrat said he could not let it advance given the backlash it received and had Wednesday’s hearing cancelled.

“You see the opposition, and you know you can’t move forward,” Scott said. “Our communities don’t support the bill as written.”

The bill has not been withdrawn; rather, Scott is tabling it for now, spokeswoman Stefanie Mavronis said.

Scott said he felt compelled to sponsor the legislation given his interest in finding new sources of revenue for the city that do not place additional burden onto taxpayers. Each new billboard erected under the language of the bill could have brought in $10,000 for the city, he said.

It’s now up to Pacific Outdoor Advertising, the New Jersey-based company advocating for this ordinance, to reach a compromise with the community groups, Scott said. The firm had expressed interest in 20 to 25 signs, which could have generated $400,000 to $500,000 for double-sided billboards.

Pacific Outdoor Advertising owner Joe Jacobs said his billboards would not have negatively impacted the communities in question. Rather, he said he would use the signage not only for advertisements but also for public service announcements, emergencies and neighborhood events.

“I welcome meeting with these groups because I think part of my duty is I want to show how I can help benefit the city of Baltimore,” he said.

A Black-owned business, Pacific Outdoor Advertising would have added needed diversity to the billboard space, Jacobs said, which matters in a city like Baltimore with a majority-minority population. Still, he said he respects Scott’s decision to hold off on the hearing.

“People spoke; president listened,” said outgoing Councilman Ed Reisinger, a Democrat who represents Baltimore’s 10th District and is retiring after about 27 years. “I think [Scott] made the right decision. They’re not concerned about the revenue stream, they’re more concerned about the proliferation of billboards.”

Reisinger, like Scott, said he supported the bill’s intent, but agreed that constituent concerns outweighed the potential benefits.

Neighborhood leaders, even those who said they will support Scott in the general election, said they have lobbied him over the last several weeks to heed their concerns.

“We’re talking about massive structures,” said John Paré, president of the Riverside Neighborhood Association, who said the billboards could tower as high as 90 feet in regions of the city with elevated highways. “It doesn’t seem like we need any more billboards, and we don’t know exactly where they’re going to be.”

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In a recent op-ed published in The Baltimore Sun, Paré argued that the legislation’s passage would negate a 20-year moratorium on new billboard erection in Baltimore, imposed to minimize clutter and beautify the streets. That bill took effect in March 2000.

Several other community leaders echoed Paré's concerns, including Kate McComiskey, who heads the Locust Point Civic Association.

“Locust Point, specifically, has spent a lot of time and energy beautifying this neighborhood, and I worry if too many of these billboards are put up, it discourages people from moving in and encourages them to move out," McComiskey said.

Doug Kaufman, past president of the Canton Community Association, said Scott’s decision to withdraw his support of the ordinance demonstrates good instincts. He will support Scott’s bid next month.

Kaufman, also a commercial real estate broker, opposed the bill, citing businesses' hesitation to open offices in Baltimore due to concerns about traffic and branding. Adding billboards would not have assuaged those fears, Kaufman said, but he looks forward to working toward a compromise with Pacific Outdoor Advertising.

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