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The Onus of Owning: Recent Reduction in ‘Minor Privilege’ Fees in Baltimore City
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One of the onuses (and irritants) of owning a building in Baltimore is the City’s imposition of fees for so-called “minor privileges.”  What is a minor privilege?  A minor privilege is a grant by the City of the right to use the public right-of-way for various encroachments that do not require a formal grant or ordinance from the City Council.  These encroachments include certain building features and items that overhang or otherwise intrude into the public right-of-way.  Examples include awnings, cornices, overhead signs, fire escapes, bay windows, planters, outdoor seating, and barber poles.  These represent only a few minor privileges included in the City’s extensive Minor Privilege Schedule of Charges and Regulations.  Authorized under Article VIII, Section 2 of the Baltimore City Charter, these fees are based on the theory that property owners and businesses derive benefit from use of the public right-of-way and should pay accordingly, just as a tenant pays rent for use of a private space.

Late last year, Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took steps to reform the minor privileges system, which culminated in the adoption of three business-friendly revisions to the Schedule by the City’s Board of Estimates on January 21, 2015.  Specifically, the Board approved revisions that (1) waive annual fees for certain items; (2) convert annual fees to one-time fees for certain items; and (3) remove outdated and prohibited items.

Waiver of Annual Fees

The Board approved the waiver of annual minor privilege fees for certain items deemed to encourage public safety and health or otherwise aid a public policy established by the City.  These items are:

  • Clocks (Wall Mounted)
  • Reflectors (Lamp or Spot)
  • Lanterns (Ornamental)
  • Bicycle Racks (when not required by the City of Baltimore)
  • ADA Compliant Ramps (compliance assessed upon payment of registration fee).

This revision took effect immediately upon the Board’s January 21, 2015 approval.  In lieu of annual fees, there will be a one-time $25.00 registration fee.  According to the City, this registration fee is needed to “support the filing and tracking of these items in the right-of-way.”

Conversion of Annual Fees to One-Time Fees

The Board approved the conversion of annual minor privilege fees to one-time fees for certain items deemed to support a variety of City goals.  The items are:

  • Reflectors (Fluorescent Tubes)
  • Signs (Electric Double Face)
  • Windows (Bow and Show)
  • Signs (Cornice Non-illuminated)
  • Awnings (Folding)
  • Signs (Flat Single Faced)
  • Awnings (Stationary)
  • Signs (Bracket)
  • Windows (Oriel)
  • Cornice (Mansard)
  • Steps

This revision will take effect July 1, 2016.  The estimated decrease in revenue resulting from this revision is $812,000.00 per year.  The July 1, 2016 effective date is intended to allow time for the Department of Finance to absorb the decreased revenue into the budget plan for future years. 

Removal of Items from the Schedule

The Board approved the removal of outdated and prohibited items from the Schedule.  The outdated items (those items no longer under the purview of the Minor Privilege Office but the Street Vendor’s licensing program) are:

  • Displays (Merchandise)
  • Pushcarts
  • Racks (Clothing) 
  • Tables (Charitable Organization)
  • Displays (Fruit and Produce)
  • Flowers (Sale of)
  • Christmas Trees (Sale of)
  • Racks (Meats)
  • Stands (Holiday)  
  • Hot Dog Carts
  • Trucks

The prohibited items (those items no longer allowed to be placed in the public right-of-way) are:

  • Telephone Booths 
  • Garage Extensions
  • Scales and Weighing Machines
  • Vending Machines
  • Piers and Bulkheads 
  • Clocks (Footway)
  • Poles or Posts in Sidewalk

This housekeeping revision took effect immediately upon the Board’s January 21, 2015 approval and was intended to clarify that these are outdated and prohibited items.  Although this revision was to take effect immediately, the current Schedule (as posted on Baltimore City’s website) does not appear to reflect all of the approved changes.  For example, a charge for a telephone booth still appears on the Schedule even though the Board’s minutes reflect that the Board approved the removal of this prohibited item from the Schedule.

Another curious anomaly relates to security cameras.  In a January 20, 2015 press release, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake indicated that “small businesses will no longer be charged for, or will pay a reduced fee for, adding certain enhancements to their businesses, such as security cameras, bicycle racks, ADA compliant ramps, and awnings used for beautification.”  [Emphasis added.]  The revisions adopted by the Board in January, however, do not address security cameras.  The City has subsequently indicated that it has never charged a minor privilege fee for security cameras – not prior to the January 21, 2015 revisions and not now.

Notwithstanding some discrepancies, these revisions are significant improvements in simplifying and reducing minor privilege fees in Baltimore City.

Emily J. Johnson, Esq. is an Associate in the Commercial Real Estate Department at Niles, Barton & Wilmer, LLP.

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