Community Issues

Changeable Copy Signs

In 1997, the Baltimore County Council passed new legislation to regulate signs. It did not adequately address electronic changeable copy signs, which have been common at banks for over a half century showing time and temperature. One of the provisions in the 1997 Bill was to provide a very generous 15-year abatement period for pre-existing signs which the bill made illegal. Unfortunately, the county staff misused this abatement period by continuing to allow new signs to be installed which were in violation of the 1997 bill. This abatement period ended October 19, 2012.

During the past decade, there has been an explosion of electronic changeable copy (ECC) signs. Many of these are now large video display screens displaying full motion graphics, and wild flashing, not the small, single color on an unlit background signs which were the norm in 1997. Although motion and scrolling of displays was clearly forbidden in the code established in 1997, and other regulations as early as 1992, Code Enforcement was not enforcing those regulations. In fact, several years ago, the County Executive instructed Code Enforcement to not enforce the restrictions, but to take a wait-and-see attitude (i.e., wait to see what the County Council would do).

Meanwhile, at the direction of the Council, the Office of Planning and the Planning Board studied this issue and held public hearings. As a result, they recommended that there should be a limit of one change per hour for these signs (and the prohibition on motion and scrolling should be retained). Based on that recommendation, the County Council introduced Bill 106-08 containing a limit of one change per half hour.

There were further public hearings and testimony before the Council and the bill was acted on at the November 3, 2008 meeting. To the complete surprise and shock of most everyone, an amendment was introduced to change the 30-minute limit in the bill to 15 seconds, which passed 4-3!

In addition to this surprising and completely unacceptable 15-second limit, there are numerous other mistakes and short-comings in the new bill, among them being:

  • It did not correct a recently occurring problem in Kingsville in which the hearing officer ruled that a business existing before 1997 is not subject to any of these restrictions. (Later opinions have also said that any building which has not changed its footprint since 1997 is not subject to any of the restrictions in Section 450 of the BCZR.)
  • It does not sufficiently restrict the use of the "time and temperature" exemption.
  • County agencies (schools, libraries, fire stations) were not made subject to the restrictions as strongly recommended by the Planning Board.

Since the new bill went into complete effect on June 25, 2009, thus reaffirming the already existing prohibitions on scrolling and motion, Code Enforcement has been very slow to enforce the new (and previous) provisions. Many signs in violation of the 15-second rule or the prohibition against motion have required 6 or 8 complaints before they were corrected. In some cases, they have outright refused to take action against specific violations. There certainly appears to be favoritism (or worse) at work with owners of various auto dealers being protected from enforcement!

Luckily, Code Enforcement has taken proper action against several electronic signs in the Kingsville/Fork area (which are completely prohibited here). These seemed to have resulted from the sign installers lying to people about what they could do.

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Updated 6 Sept 2021 by MAP