Legislation - past and future

The following is a synopsis of past legislation related to signage in Baltimore County and some thoughts concerning the need for revisions:

State law

The Transportation Article §8-605 contains the prohibition on placing signs in state road right-of-way. Prior to 2011 there was some uncertainty regarding the County's right to enforce this provision. During the 2011 legislative session, House Bill 289 was passed which clarified this matter, and made it clear that County officials had the authority to enforce this provision by issuing fines or by removing and destroying such illegal signs "without resort of legal proceedings".

Just as importantly, it requires that the County "shall enforce this subsection on a viewpoint and content neutral basis." What this means is that they cannot make special allowances, for example, for real estate signs.

It also states that "the presence of a sign within a State highway right-of-way shall be evidence that the sign was placed or maintained at the direction of, or with the consent and approval of, the person or the person's agent or representative in the State whose name, business, location, or product representation is displayed on the sign." So, if someone's phone number is on the sign, they can be charged.

Baltimore County - BCZR (and ZCPM)

Prior to 1997, the County's Sign Code was contained in §413 of the Baltimore County Zoning Regulations (BCZR). It should also be noted that there was another document called the Zoning Commissioner's Policy Manual (ZCPM), approved in 1992, which contained material on signs, which was considered to be a clarification or explanation on how to interpret §413. However, this ZCPM was never placed online, which all laws and regulations are supposed to be, nor is it even easy to find a copy, as it is not in the public libraries as also required by County Code.

In 1997, there was a complete rewrite which resulted in Bill 89-1997 which repealed the previous §413 and enacted §450. In fact, much of the material added to the new §450 came from the old ZCPM. In spite of this, various departments continued to incorrectly refer to the old §413 and use it as the basis for issuing sign permits and in zoning hearings. This continued as recently as 2011 when the Zoning office created a form for applicants for new signs to acknowledge that they understood that they would have to come into compliance with §450 at a later date, even though §450 had clearly required complete compliance for new signs as soon as this bill's enactment in 1997.

To make matters worse, the 1992 ZCPM continues to be referenced in Zoning Hearings as still being the "law of the land", even if in contradiction to more recent BCZR provisions. At least, in two separate hearings that I have been involved in, the hearing officer ruled that the §413 portion of the ZCPM was null and void.

In 2008, a major effort was begun to revise §450 to better address electronic changeable-copy signs. This was brought about mainly due to an uncertainty in Code Enforcement regarding what the existing BCZR said about the new electronic signs. (Most of us understood it to say that they were prohibited, but the practice for some years had been to allow them, with the changing limited to once per hour.) After lots of citizen input, the Office of Planning came out with proposed legislation that codified the 1 hour limit. The County Council held a hearing at which multiple business people (including Todd Huff) testified that the "new" limits would be an unfair restriction that would prevent them from fully using the electronic signs that they had spent tens of thousands of dollars to install. This was a bogus argument, as the limit of 1 hour (and no motion) had been in place for a long time. Following that Council hearing, nothing happened until I spoke after a Council meeting and pleaded that they progress the Bill to consideration. While all this process was going on, Code Enforcement had completely stopped any enforcement.

The draft was finally introduced as Bill 106-2008 containing a proposed limit of 30 minutes. To the shock of everyone, at the final legislative session, Councilman Moxley proposed an amendment to change "30 minutes" to "15 seconds". Gardina seconded, and the amendment passed 4-3, with Kamenetz, McIntire, and Oliver voting against it. Earlier, at the Work Session, Gardina had commented that he watched one of those drug store signs changing every 15 seconds and didn't think it was so bad. At the subsequent meeting, numerous citizens spoke out against this result, but to no avail. After the bill became effective in 45 days, and then after another ridiculous 180-day delay, Code Enforcement finally resumed, half-heartedly, to enforce the new, relaxed provisions. Some business owners continued to (incorrectly) bitch about the "new" restrictions.

Baltimore County Code

Meanwhile, apparently prompted by some actions in Harford County, the County Council passed Bill 38-06 to revise the County Code to allow citizens to remove illegally posted signs from the roadside and to dispose of them. Unfortunately, the wording left a lot to be desired and further changes are needed (see below).

Needed new legislation

The provisions enacted in Bill 38-06 were unclear. While it was clear that the legislative intent was as stated in the Minutes of the Council meeting: "an Act for the purpose of providing that a person who is not a county employee may remove an illegally posted sign under certain circumstances...", the actual words of the Bill were rather vague and ambivalent. It's shocking (but common) that the Council can pass such poorly worded legislation. Here is the resulting Code Section. Here are the problems:

  • It enumerates the places that one may not place a sign, but it does not list "in the right-of-way of a state road" or "on state property". This should be added to help make it clear that the County Code Enforcement can take action for these violations and to give them a County Code to reference in the citations.
  • After listing 7 places that one may not place a sign, it says that anyone may remove signs from the first 6. It leaves off those on a pole owned by a public utility.
  • It only states that a person who removes an illegally placed sign is not in violation of "this title". It says nothing about not being in violation of any other law. (I was charged for violation of another part of State law.)
  • The allowance uses the word "resident", while clearly this is not limited to someone living in the County. This is open to misinterpretation. I actually had a police officer imply that he thought it meant the resident of the property on which the sign was illegally placed. (That was another time I almost got charged with "theft" when I removed a large A-frame for a tax service from a County park.)
  • The Code also states that a person who removes a sign is liable for damage to county property or any other persons or property, not including damage to the sign itself, while removing the sign. This certainly seems to indicate that an illegal sign, once removed, may be destroyed or discarded, but it does not say so explicitly.
  • Conversations with County police officers indicate that they are unsure about their authority to take action. One insisted that he could not remove, much less issue a citation against the culprit who placed, a sign put in the right-of-way of a state road (Belair Rd). Another thought he could not do anything about multiple signs placed in the median of a county road unless he witnessed the person doing it. (I think that he might have gone by the store and warned them not to put up any more - to replace the ones that I removed.)

Here is the proposed revision:

A person may not post, place or affix a sign:
(1) ...
(7) ...

(f) Removal of signs by [residents] OTHER PERSONS
   (1) [Notwithstanding subsections (a)(1) and (d) of this section, it shall not be considered a violation of this title for a person who is not an employee of the county to] ANY PERSON MAY remove AND DISPOSE OF a sign posted in violation of 23-1-102(1) through [23-1-102(6)] 23-1-102(8) of this title AND SUCH REMOVAL MAY NOT BE CONSIDERED AS THEFT. NO ACTION IN EQUITY OR AT LAW MAY BE INITIATED AGAINST A PERSON FOR REMOVING A SIGN IN ACCORDANCE WITH THIS SUBSECTION.

Add a more explicit statement (copy from state law) that the mere existence of a sign advertising a product or service is sufficient proof that it was put there by the company identified on the sign, as well as a statement that the Police can enforce and remove any such sign.

Sign Code Clean-up

Typically, a Sign Code is one of the most complicated sections of an jurisdiction's Codes. This is made worse by politicians who seem intent on carving out special allowances in special cases, probably for their special friends. Other times, it is just plain sloppiness in crafting the words, with no special office responsible for ensuring understandability. Consider that statement in the BCZR § 450.3 that is trying to define when a "double-faced" sign is counted as one sign.

"Two freestanding, projecting or banner sign faces of equal dimensions and height having a horizontal angle between the vertical planes of the two sign faces of at least 330° or less and a distance between the two sign faces at their closest points of less than two feet."

I challenge anyone to parse out that sentence and show in a diagram what is and is not counted as one sign. The phrase "at least 330° or less" pretty much includes any arrangement (or none).

Other Counties

Some of the counties around us have some very strange (and apparently, illegal) laws regarding signs in county road rights-of-way. This is important, since the glut there tends to overflow into Baltimore County. As one perpetrator testified recently in a Baltimore County Code Enforcement hearing: his over-zealous employee was supposed to put up signs by hte roadsides "only in Anne Arundel County". Examples:

  • Anne Arundel County
    §18-3-106 allows up to 6 temporary directional signs per "event" or "destination", no more than 3 sq ft and 3 ft in height, 8am Friday to 9 am Monday within County right-of-way if at least 3 ft from curb or paved area.
  • Howard County
    §3.503 allows 4 temporary real estate signs (with no permit) on "approach routes", not more than 3 sq ft and 3 ft height, in county right-of-way 4pm Friday to noon Monday. Other signs are allowed with a permit.
  • Montgomery County
    §6.7.11 "limited duration signs" are allowed, without a permit, in public right-of-way, max 5 sq ft, max height 30 inches, 50 ft from driveway and 100 ft from street intersection, 2 ft from curb or 6 ft from paving. Only on either weekends or max of 14 consecutive says within any 6-month period. (What does that mean?)

This is totally contrary to state law and to many court decisions that say that all sign codes and enforcement must be "content neutral". Real estate signs can't be allowed if other businesses are not allowed to put up signs in the same places for the same time.

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Updated 8 Jan 2019 by MAP