Leonardtown, MD — Signs on school bus shelters will be going the way of tobacco farms in St. Mary’s County. On Aug. 30 The Commissioners of St. Mary’s County approved new sign regulations, which among other things will ban the school bus shelter signs. The regulations also ban real estate and mattress store signs along road rights-of-way and signs plastered on liquor store windows and facades. The regulations also limit the size of signs, effectively eliminating some billboards and shopping center entrance signs.

The regulations were adopted after a June 21 commissioners’ public hearing and recommendations from the planning commission. The planners recommended a two-year grace period for removal of non-conforming signs, instead of the 10 years suggested by the Department of Land Use and Growth Management (LUGM).

“I think 10 years is ridiculous,” said Commissioner Tom Jarboe [R – 1st District]. Instead the commissioners compromised with a five-year grace period in their final unanimous vote (Commissioner John O’Connor was not in attendance). LUGM Director Phil Shire said the grace period was needed because of the cost of some of the signs that would be eliminated. He used as an example the sign at the entrance to First Colony in California.

At the planning commission meeting at which their recommendation was made, Vice Chairman Shelby Guazzo pressed for some regulations of electronic signs, particularly with respect to their level if illumination. In the end the planners rejected Guazzo’s suggestion after both Shire and County Attorney George Sparling talked about the difficulty of coming up with a standard which would hold up. “There are so many different guidelines from different organizations,” Sparling told the commissioners in indicating there may be more guidance in the future that would allow them to adopt regulations on electronic signs.

As adopted the regulations limit the size of signs to nine square feet on residential property and 32 square feet on non-residential properties. Commercial and digital signs are prohibited on residential properties but they could have a sign noting a home-occupation.

“It is going to get rid of a lot of sign clutter,” Sparling said of the new regulations when pressed by Commissioner Todd Morgan [R – 4th District] to come up with reasons for them.

The movement to change the sign regulations came after the Department of Land Use and Growth Management came under fire when it enforced the regulations on advertising signs on store facades in the case of the Chaptico Market. Those types of signs were banned in then-existing ordinance and would continue to be banned in the proposed change, as would real estate signs along the highway.

That enforcement led to the commissioners suggesting a review of the sign regulations. County staff had been meeting for about six months to draft the proposal that Sparling presented at the public hearing. The new regulations call for violations to be a civil infraction. But Sparling emphasized to the commissioners that the intent of the regulations was to stay away from any prohibitions on what individuals can do on their private residential property.

Because of the size limitations, however, the regulations would prohibit some of the larger political signs on individual property.

The school bus shelter signs will be effectively eliminated with the requirement that the shelters be open on three sides. There was concern among the planning commission members that unsavory characters could hide in the enclosed shelters waiting to prey on children. And there was also doubt about their purpose as shelters as opposed to advertising vehicles.

Several members said they had never seen any children in the shelters. And Planning Commission Chairman Howard Thompson said he never would allow his grandchildren to use them out of fear for their safety.

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com