Carl Yoder, a carpenter's foreman for Rollins Outdoor Advertising in Bladensburg, spends most mornings working on giant billboards in Prince George's County. Yoder relies on their slogans and images - and their proliferation throughout the county - for his weekly paycheck.
But, one morning last week, Yoder found himself sitting in the lobby of the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro. Together with 24 other men from his shop, he was waiting to testify against a bill that he said threatened his very livelihood.
Yoder and his co-workers had reason to be concerned. Stringent local regulations passed in recent years have allowed only four or five neww billboards in Fairfax, Montgomery, Arlington and Loudoun counties. There have long been federal restrictions against billboards along many of the nation's highways.
Fearing that Prince George's County could become the dumping ground for all the car, restaurant and political ads not permitted in surrounding jurisdictions, Prince George's County Council member Paris N. Glendening initiated legislation last month to severely restrict the size, height and set back limits for billboards.
Glendening proposed to limit the overall size of a billboard to 400 square feet, the height to 35 feet above ground level and the number, within a 1,000-foot area, to one billboard. That, coupled with a requirement that any billboard must be more than 200 feet from a roadway, drew an angry response from representatives of local advertising firms who claimed the proposal would put them out of business.
Rollins General Manager Vincent Ernano told the council that billboards were "the safest and cleanest form of advertising today" and "should be considered a service" rather than a hindrance to the community.
Rollins gave a two-hour presentation on outdoor advertising which included a brief history of the medium since Egyptian times, proclamations from citizens' groups for the good deeds of individual employes and photographs of how shrubs, trees and other existing signs are making it hard for a good billboard to be seen from the highway.
Council member Francis B. Francois, who opposes billboard restrictions, told Ernano, "I think that whenever we can show the people good art, we should do it. This is a precious art form," he added, bringing forth images of the Chew Mail Pouch and See Rock City art of years ago.
Yoder and his colleagues, many of whom stated they wanted to make outdoor advertising their life work, said they just didn't know what they would do if the bill were to pass.
"You know, I'm too old to look for new work," Yoder said. "If they pass this, I guess I'll just come down here every day and rattle my tin cup."
Michael Summers told the council he had planned to "making billboards my career. This bill will cut down on the amount of signs we get and will mean shorter work times, will cut down my pay week."
Rollins, a corporate giant, owns three VHF television stations, one FM and five AM radio stations, two cable television systems, Rollins Protective Services, Orkin Exterminating Service, an oil and gas production services industry, a fabric factory and custom janitorial and housekeeping maintance services in addition to its outdoor advertising company. It had a 16 percent increase in revenues in 1978, said, Ernano said, the company added about 20 new billboards to the 300 billboards that Rollins already owns in Prince George's.
Prince George's politicians have done business with outdoor advertising companies in several ways. Some have bought space on billboards for election campaign ads, some have rented space for campaign headquarters in Rollins office building in Bladensburg, while at least one council member, chairman Francis W. White, received a 1974 campaign contribution from Ernanco.
White denied receiving any more recent contributions from the Rollins company.
Glendening stressed that the council was not proposting to ban billboards, just reduce their size and hence their impact on the roadways and byways of Prince George's County.
Ernano said there are two sizes of billboards used in outdoor advertising, a 12-foot by 25-foot poster panel and a 14-foot by 48-foot painted bulletin. The bill sought to prohibit further construction of the latter and limit the remaining billboards to a height of 35 feet above ground.
Glendening said the restrictions were "reasonable. We just want to keep our community intact. There are places in this county, like along Rte. 1, that are just packed with these super billboards. This bill would keep them in their place."
"This bill would not affect current billboards, at would just put a freeze on new ones. The same people who are working on existing signs would be able to still work on them."
Three weeks ago, the council approved a bill that would permit billboards in certain commercial areas wit the granting of a special exception by the zoning board. After citizen opposition arose, the council voted to reverse its action and sent the bill back to committee. Two council members said privately, however, that they would bring the bill back to the council after election.
Glendening's bill, however, was not well received at the council session this week. Saying they were concerned with the piecemeal approach to billboard laws and with the economic impact of the bill on the billboard industry, the council voted 6-to-3 to table the bill - an action that killed the legislation for this session.
"With the election only one week away, this really isn't the time to discuss this issue," said council member William B. Amonett.
His colleague, council member Gerard T. McDonough, who made the motion to table the bill, said, "I am personally not enamoured of billboards but I don't think I have to inflict my personal predelictions, no matter how popular they are, on a minority of individuals who may be economically affected."
Glendening vowed to bring back the legislation in the next session. "This issue isn't going away, and it will only become more intense. Our county will now be the point of least resistance in the area and will become a real dumping ground."
"I always thought billboards were as American as apple pie," said Clarence Smith, a 50-year veteran of Eastern Outdoor Advertising Company. "But after hearing you, Mr. Glendening, I'm not so sure."