2016 | Politics

Real Estate Industry Opposes Blanket Ban on Signs in Road Medians, Near Sidewalks

Already illegal without a permit, sign placement persists

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A sign placed in the public right-of-way next to Arlington Road in Bethesda

Aaron Kraut

Realtors, home builders and developers at a Tuesday public hearing made clear their opposition to a County Council proposal that would ban all roadside signs, claiming directional signage to open houses and sales centers is their most effective advertising tool.

“While you may believe the Internet is the primary way folks learn about opportunities to purchase a home, real estate signs are vitally important to let residents know about the broader real estate market in surrounding neighborhoods,” said Bill Highsmith Jr., vice president and chief operating officer of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors. “When signs lead to even a few more Montgomery County residents becoming homeowners and homebuyers, than they are absolutely worth it.”

But council member George Leventhal, who introduced the zoning text amendment in June after raising concerns about political campaign signage during the April primary season, pointed out the roadside signs are already illegal, unless the person who places the sign applies for a limited duration sign permit from the county.

There are no limited duration sign permits on file, yet the signs persist.

Leventhal’s zoning text amendment would eliminate the temporary sign permit in an effort to make enforcement easier for the county’s Department of Permitting Services (DPS). DPS officials have said removing the signs can lead to tricky First Amendment legal questions.

“The signs that are so ringingly defended here for lost puppies, struggling religious enterprises, that seek to serve all kinds of virtuous purposes…are against the law today,” Leventhal said during the public hearing after hearing from the first group of speakers. “I understand that Realtors believe their activities are especially virtuous.”

Some from the real estate industry asked that instead of an outright ban on signs in the county right-of-way, the county do a better job of enforcement and education surrounding the existing law.

Raquel Montenegro of the Maryland Building Industry Association, which represents home building companies, said the lack of any limited duration sign permits on file “would appear to indicate that few posters of such signs are aware that a permit is required.”

Evan Goldman, vice president of development for Bethesda-based developer EYA, told council members that not being able to place roadside signs “would have a huge impact on us economically and our ability to sell homes in the county.”

EYA has five projects under construction in the county. Goldman said most of the company’s buyers live within two or three miles of their projects and find out about the developments by driving by EYA roadside signs.

“We do support some rules to avoid visual clutter,” Goldman said. “Getting rid of it altogether would have a huge impact on not just us, but people selling their existing home.”

Council President Nancy Floreen then jumped in.

“I’m going to reiterate what Mr. Leventhal said: These signs are already prohibited. This is a fact. This council didn’t do it. Some other council did it,” Floreen said.

While defending the need for the zoning change, Leventhal also said he expects his proposal to be tweaked if it passes. He also indicated the county government should do a better job of enforcing the existing roadside sign law.

“We haven’t had that in Montgomery County by the executive branch of government,” Leventhal said.

The zoning text amendment will be the subject of a Sept. 12 hearing at the Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee.

Correction: The name of the group represented by Raquel Montenegro was misidentified. The correct name of the group is the Maryland Building Industry Association.