For 50 years no large highway billboards have gone up in the nation's capital. Five new billboards have been approved under court order, however, and if proposed new city sign regulations are enacted, hundreds more could be constructed around Washington in the near future.
Congress and District officials historically have opposed billboards as inappropriate in the capital, and city lawyers have contested the five court-sanctioned billboards -- so far unsuccessfully.
The proposed new billboard regulations would concede there is a right to construct billboards here and attempt only to limit their size and location.
The proposed maximum size would be larger than the nearly 100 billboards that have stood along city streets since 1931, when Washington was being overwhelmed by billboards and enacted laws thought to give the city full power to prohibit large signs.
The 1,127 billboards in the city in 1931 -- many were in residential neighborhoods -- had dwindled to 622, by 1934 and to 120 by 1961, mostly through attrition, as land was sold and buildings demolished.
The proposed new city regulations would permit billboards as large as 432 square feet (14 by 30 feet), compared wth the standard 300 square feet (12 by 25 feet).
They also would echo federal highway regulations, which prohibit signs in residential neighborhoods or within 660 feet of historic districts, landmarks and federally subsidized roads. This would preclude signs along New York Avenue and many of the city's major arteries, as well as along interstate highways such as I-295 and the Southwest Freeway.
The D.C. Court of Appeals and the D.C. Board of Appeals and Review have deemed current city regulations insufficient to ban billboards, and have ordered that permits be issued to the area's largest billboard firm, the Rollins Outdoor Advertising Co.
Rollins has 23 lighted billboards here, including a number in residential neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill. Most of the signs advertise such things as cigarettes, automobiles, banks and oil companies.
The District's lawyers this summer sued Rollins to require the firm to demolish five signs near Pennsylvania Avenue and 6th Street SE. The suit, now before the D.C. Court of Appeals, claims the signs violate federal highway laws -- Pennsylvania Avenue is federally funded.
The suit was brought after Rollins won an order from the same court compelling the city to approve construction of four new billboards in other parts of the city -- at 1801 W. Virginia Ave. NE, 219 Riggs Rd. NW, 2815 D St. NE and the 1800 block of Bladensburg Road NE.
Rollins applied to the city for permits to build these four signs last year, after having won the right to construct a billboard at 2023 9th St. NW. The request to build the 9th Street sign, denied by city officials, was approved by the administrative court of appeals.
Rollins' manager here, Vincent Ernano, said, "We're a legitimate business and we believe billboards are appropriate in certain parts of the city. We don't believe they should be in residential or scenic areas, and we would gladly take out the five signs at 6th and Pennsyslvania Avenue if we could put in signs somewhere else."
The Rollins firm approves of the new regulations in general, but insists they are too restrictive. "The setback requirement of 660 feet would keep us off almost every artery in the city," Ernano complained.
If the city wished, it apparently could rewrite its regulations and ban billboards everywhere in the city, which both the Fine Arts Commission and the National Capital Plannng Commission unofficially are urging the city to do.
Even the city's own lawyers concede such a ban stands a pretty good chance of being upheld by the courts.
Billboard bans in San Diego and a number of other cities and states have withstood court challenges, assistant corporation counsel Benjamin Terner told the planning commission last week, when commission members asked why the city wasn't proposing more stringent regulations.
The regulations now being circulated among city agencies for comment can be put into effect by administrative order and do not need City Council approval or public hearings, according to officials of the Department of Housing and Community Development, which drafted the new rules.
But District officials appear to have mixed feelings about outdoor advertising.
While city lawyers are fighting present as well as future billboards, other city officials are proposing to allow billboards, even larger billboards, in many parts of the city. And city officialdom has blown hot and cold on other kinds of outdoor advertising.
The city has ordered the removal of a huge Marriott sign on top of a hotel at 22nd and M streets NW -- a lighted sign 55 feet long and 9 feet high that exceeds city regulations and, from a distance, appears to be attached to the Washington Monument. The sign was approved through a clerk's error.
But the City Council has encouraged the proliferation of other kinds of outdoor signs, recently approving advertising on the backs of Metrobuses and on privately built bus shelters. It is now proposing to allow signs on the sides of buses.
Last year, regulations to permit advertising signs on taxicab rooftops also were approved by the City Council, but were vetoed by Mayor Marion Barry who objected to the cluttered look they would have on city streets.