For some time, Myles L. Lichtenberg has wanted to replace the old-fashioned outdoor advertising sign he owns on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard with a new digital billboard, the kind that displays up to six messages a minute.
But under the city’s 20-year-old billboard moratorium ordinance, Lichtenberg can only put up a new billboard if he takes down three.
That restriction has been good news for those who want to continue a policy to reduce Baltimore’s visual clutter, but problematic for people who have only one or two billboards.
Now the Planning Commission has thrown its weight behind a City Council bill (20-0623) that would ease that restriction.
It voted 9-0 on Thursday to allow so-called “little guy” sign owners such as Lichtenberg, a lawyer and owner of Maryland Commercial Title, to put up a digital billboard without requiring them to take down three.
At the same time, the commissioners said they still want the company that owns the majority of billboards in the city, Clear Channel Outdoor, to be subject to the existing three-billboard removal policy.
The bill sponsor,Councilman Ed Reisinger, cast his legislation as an attempt to correct a law that favors the big companies.
“I don’t think it’s fair for the small person,” Reisinger said.
Bigger Billboard Battle
The hearing came one week after the commission voted 6 to 2 not to support legislation, introduced by City Council President Brandon Scott, allowing jumbo billboards to be erected on railroad rights of way paralleling interstate highways.
Despite the panel’s disapproval, however, the railroad billboard bill will proceed to the Council’s Land Use Committee for further action next Wednesday.
Its chief proponent, Atlantic City, N.J., businessman Joseph Jacobs, is seeking to get the legislation passed before the Council’s current term ends in late November.
Whereas that bill drew many speakers and 31 letters of opposition, no one from local community groups testified at Thursday’s virtual hearing, which was called by panel chairman Sean Davis to address a slew of measures that backers want passed before the City Council’s term ends and lame-duck Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young leaves office.
Several bills were written to help give landlords more options for leasing retail and restaurant space vacated during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In at least one case, the commission agreed to waive the legal requirement that a property be “publicly posted” for 10 days.
And at one point, a commissioner conjured up a proposal that was not on the agenda, suggesting out of the blue that the commission repeal all urban renewal plans in the city.
Here are some of the nearly one dozen measures the commission acted on:
• 2 East Wells Street, site of a 154-unit apartment building in South Baltimore. A bill was introduced by Councilman Eric Costello to change its zoning from R-8 high density residential to C-2, which would permit “higher intensity” commercial uses, including taverns.
The change, commissioners were told, would give the property owners more flexibility in leasing first-level commercial spaces during the pandemic without triggering a public hearing before the city’s zoning board.
Chairman Davis said his engineering firm, Morris & Ritchie Associates, was involved in the building “many, many years ago,” but because the firm is not currently working on the project, he would not recuse himself from the discussions.
Eric Tiso, division chief of the planning department, said he suspected that what the property owners “are really looking for is having a tavern option, having live entertainment.”
Joseph R. Woolman, their attorney, did not disagree, saying the owners are considering a “high-end package goods store” that might include a tasting room that the zoning board might consider a tavern. The commission voted unanimously to recommend the zoning change to the Council.
• 1220-1222 West North Avenue. A bill was introduced by Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III to change zoning for the property from OR-1 (office-residential) to the C-1 (commercial).
This is the property that wasn’t posted for the required amount of time. It is currently occupied by a discount liquor store and a vacant clothing shop.
• 1900, 1904, 1910 and 1916 Light Street: A bill was introduced by Costello to change zoning for the properties from high density residential to commercial.
Again, the commissioners were told the bill would give the owners more flexibility in leasing the properties, which include the former site of a slaughterhouse and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The properties are registered to a company owned by Stephen Wilhide, an Ellicott City businessman who has contributed $600 to Costello.
• Reisterstown Plaza Transit Station Area: A bill was introduced by Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer to repeal the Reisterstown Plaza Transit Station Urban Renewal Area and Plan, created in 1981 and then replaced in 2009 to control what could be built in 26-plus acres around the above-ground Metro station.
By repealing the existing renewal plan and not replacing it, the bill would eliminate certain restrictions on what uses are permitted in the area, and the commissioners supported such a repeal.
This in turn led to the suggestion by Planning Commissioner Thomas K. Prevas that the panel consider repealing all urban renewal plans – an idea that wasn’t immediately pursued.
Sign Ban Already Eroded
In approving the billboard conversion bill, the commissioners said they didn’t want to eliminate design controls on signage, but were open to revisiting the rule about taking down three billboards for every one new one that goes up.
Herbert Burgunder III, who represented Lichtenberg, argued that the sign ban has eroded over the years, noting the advent of giant billboards on the Royal Farms Arena downtown and on bus shelters and bike-sharing stations.
“If the goal is to permit new players into the business, I do think there is a way to open up the opportunity for small business owners to participate,” he said. “I do think there is a way to scale it.”
Al Barry, a consultant working for Lichtenberg, made the same pitch, saying, “We’re trying to break up, essentially, a monopoly that puts people at a competitive disadvantage.”
The commissioners came up with a recommendation to waive the requirement to take down three signs for any applicant that currently owns seven signs or fewer, but to enforce the requirement for any applicant that owns more than seven. They kept in all the design standards.
The bill, with the commission’s recommended changes, is scheduled to be heard by the Land Use Committee on October 23.
• Mark Reutter contributed to this story.