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Billboard owners may get reprieve from new law

August 26, 1998|By JULIE E. GREENE

Two Hagerstown City Council members suggested Tuesday night that a proposed billboard law not affect existing billboards immediately.

Councilman J. Wallace McClure suggested grandfathering in existing billboards so the city doesn't punish people who have established billboards legally.

Councilwoman Susan Saum-Wicklein agreed current billboard owners should be grandfathered in, but said that they should meet new regulations when the billboard is rebuilt or reconfigured.

Councilman Alfred W. Boyer said he shared city officials' concerns about the affect of the "burgeoning proliferation" of billboards on the city's skyscape, but suggested they delay making a decision since they received new information from the business community.

The council was scheduled to introduce a law restricting billboards to one per lot and creating landscaping, size and location restrictions, but took no vote during Tuesday night's regular session.

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Council members will discuss the proposed law during a Sept. 8 work session and could vote that day whether to adopt the law through an emergency ordinance rather than through the regular process, which requires two votes, officials said.

Before the meeting, the executive vice president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce handed elected officials a letter stating concerns about the proposal.

After the public discussion, Executive Vice President Fred Teeter said the city could regulate billboards for aesthetic, positioning or content reasons, but it was "ridiculous" to say the proposal was made for "public health."

In his letter, Teeter challenged city officials to provide evidence the billboards posed public safety concerns.

In researching the proposal in regard to existing billboards, City Attorney Mark Boyer said the city might have to compensate billboard owners for meeting the requirements or give them five years to change their signs.

McClure said the only way he would include existing billboards is if the city paid for the changes, which the city cannot afford.

Douglas Wright Jr., owner of GS Images, said grandfathering current billboards is reasonable. GS Images owns 44 advertising spaces on 21 different structures within the city.

Wright said if he had to change all of his signs in five years he wouldn't have a business because of the loss of advertising revenue and the cost of renovating the sign structures.

Where GS Images owns the land the billboards are on, the company could lose the land's value because it isn't big enough for anything but holding billboards, Wright said.

City officials have gotten complaints about the growing number of billboards, especially ones on South Burhans Boulevard and on East Wilson Boulevard near South Potomac Street.

Those billboards are owned by Kegerreis Outdoor Advertising in Fayetteville, Pa.

"We're in the advertising business ... We're just trying to make a living," said co-owner Ron Kegerreis in a telephone interview before the meeting.

"I'm sure whatever they'll do will be reasonable," Kegerreis said.

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