The Real Deal - December 2012

Date: December 6, 2012

"Sign of the Times" in Baltimore County

By: Timothy M. Kotroco, Esq.

I was fortunate to spend the first half of my professional career working in Baltimore County Government, and for many of those years I was the Director of Permits and Development Management, overseeing the entire development process in Baltimore County. In that capacity I regulated many things, one of which was signage.

For the past 15 years, we had an unwritten competition among the employees in the permits office as to who would be lucky enough to retire or be out of County government before the arrival of October 19, 2012. I was lucky enough to beat that deadline by a mere five months, leaving behind other employees who weren’t so lucky.

So, now you are wondering, what is the importance of October 19, 2012? Well, that gets me to the title of this article, the “sign of the times in Baltimore County,” and the familiar lyrics of a 1971 hit single by the Five Man Electrical Band (at least familiar to those of us old enough to remember them).

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind. Do this, don’t do that! Can’t you read the sign!”

The Baltimore County Council apparently shares this same sentiment, as even a brief perusal of the current sign regulations will reveal. In 1995, the County Council formed a “sign committee” to study signage in Baltimore County. The committee was made up of mostly citizen activists with a smattering of a few County employees. I was Deputy Zoning Commissioner at the time and participated, in small part, in that committee. After two years, the committee completed its work and on October 19, 1997, a little more than 15 years ago, the Baltimore County Council passed and enacted a very stringent sign law. But what did we care? The provisions of the newly passed sign regulations would not impact any already existing signs for another 15 years! In other words, rather than dealing with the illegal signs in one fell swoop, the law contained a “sunset provision” that allowed all existing signs to remain as they were until October 19, 2012. So began the friendly competition among us employees since none of us wanted to be working in County government when that date arrived. We knew that enforcement of that law would wreak havoc on existing businesses in Baltimore County and none of us wanted to be around to see that happen. The sign committee was disbanded. Their work was completed. The damage was done. All that was left to do now was to wait 15 years to see what happened. Wow, how time flies.

It is important to review what was passed in 1997 in order to understand its impact today. The prefatory sections of the 1997 legislation set the tone of the sentiment of the County Council at the time:

“The amount of signage in Baltimore County is excessive. Excessive signage unduly distracts drivers and pedestrians, thereby creating traffic and safety hazards, impairing the utility of the highway system, and reducing the effectiveness of signs and other devices necessary for directing and controlling traffic.

Baltimore County’s appearance is marred, property values and public investments are jeopardized, scenic routes are diminished, and revitalization and conservation efforts are impeded by excessive signage and incompatible signage.”. (BCZR Sec. 450.1)

The day of reckoning arrived on October 19, 2012, and now all signs in Baltimore County must comply with the myriad rules and regulations set forth at BCZR section 450, including the “Table of Sign Regulations,” which itself spans 19 pages and frequently requires technical expertise to decipher its many arcane provisions.

There is no longer a theoretical or far off requirement that can be ignored. The amnesty is over, and now every sign not in compliance with this regulation must be removed. Baltimore County Zoning Regulation section 450.8.C, while not widely understood, (including among lawyers) even requires business owners who sought and received variance relief for their signage in the past 15 years to dismantle their signs or again obtain a variance from a Baltimore County Administrative Law Judge.

As a business owner, with what is now an illegal sign, you may be wondering what to do now? After all, you probably haven’t received a citation. Baltimore County’s code enforcement bureau is, for the most part, “complaint driven,” so typically they will not investigate a matter unless a complaint is filed. But business owners should not take much solace from this policy, especially considering the proliferation of community advocacy groups and “watchdogs” like the Kingsville resident featured in the media, who, as a personal mission, monitors and reports to Baltimore County many violations of the sign regulations, not just in his community but all over the County. Zoning complaints can also be filed anonymously, which creates an opportunity for an adversary with a grudge, or even a competitor, to request a zoning inspector to scrutinize a business’ signage.

Baltimore County imposes a fine of $200 per day for illegal signs, and each day is a separate violation. These fines can quickly add up. It would behoove prudent business owners to contact their attorneys to discuss the impact of this law on their business. Personally, I feel fortunate to have won the office competition and no longer be in government, since I never wanted to be the person who had to enforce this law against a business owner. I am much happier to be able to work with business owners to find ways to keep their business signage, preserving signs that may have existed on their property for many years.