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Design panel supports some changes to billboard ordinance

Tuesday, April 8, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Design Commission, minus Chair Girard Kinney who recused himself, approved a letter last night that outlined the commission’s concerns regarding changes to the ordinance governing billboards.


The first question from commissioners  — and more than one commissioner – was the intention of Council’s amendment. Was the so-called “legislative intent” of the amendment, Commissioner Perry Lorenz asked, to eliminate billboards altogether?


“I’ve not heard that. I haven’t had discussions of that,” said Assistant City Attorney David Lloyd, who was joined by planner Jessica King in the discussion. “I don’t know whether it’s intended to eliminate all billboards permanently. I do know the city’s intention was to reduce the number of billboards over time.”


Scenic Austin, in particular, has been concerned about the lack of impact the sign ordinance has had in reducing the number of billboards in Austin and, in particular, after the Council approved changes that allowed the relocation of billboards out of East Austin, which appeared to have more than its fair share of billboard eye candy.


Design Commission Chair Girard Kinney is also the president of Scenic Austin and a member of the board of Scenic Texas, non-profit groups that seek to eliminate billboards. Council Member Jennifer Kim told In Fact Daily Kinney asked her to place the ordinance amendment on the Design Commission’s agenda. Last night, Kinney recused himself from the billboard discussion, sitting in the audience while Commissioner Phil Reed chaired the discussion and reviewed the commission’s letter.


The Design Commission supports fees for taxicabs which carry advertising and the ban on mobile billboard companies. It also continues to favor getting rid of billboards through attrition and opposes the relocation of billboards, whether it’s to a scenic roadway or any other type of roadway.


It’s been difficult to get a handle on the number of billboards in Austin because only about 20 percent actually are registered with the city, said Kate Meehan of Scenic Austin. The city’s own figures were that between 1999 and 2004 – the years that the “attrition” method of billboard removal was in force – a total of 125 billboards were removed.


Then Council approved the relocation of billboards; specifically, out of less desirable areas of the city to the freeways and arterials of the city that could handle more billboards, minus the city’s designated scenic roadways. The impact of that change has led to the net addition of two billboards in the city in the last four years, according to city staff.


“We do strongly advocate for the attrition of billboards,” Meehan said. “We also assume that we continue to support the repeated statements of City Council that the eventual goal over the next 25 years is the elimination of billboards. That said, allowing billboards to be taken down (and relocated) when the land use changes completely eliminates attrition. Obviously, the damage has been done, and attrition has stopped.”


The ordinance changes, outlined by Council last November, are a mixed bag but clearly work to the advantage of the two large billboard companies that operate in town. Mobile billboards – those traveling billboard-size with no purpose other than to advertise a business – would be outlawed. Taxicabs would have to begin paying registration fees for on-board signs that advertise other businesses.


The part that has drawn the concern of Scenic Austin and others, however, is the push by billboard companies Reagan and Lamar to put relocated billboards on four “developed” roadways now listed under the city’s scenic roadway plan, Meehan said. The two billboard companies also would be given more latitude on the size of relocated billboards. And it would be the billboard owner – and not the property owner – who would be responsible for registering the billboard. Property owners have been notoriously lax in registering billboards.


No member of the commission is more passionate than Kinney on the billboard issue, although commissioners all said they would prefer to see attrition eliminate billboards. So it was not surprising that the commission noted its continued opposition to the relocation of billboards and the expansion of relocated billboards to four segments of scenic roadway: MoPac, north of US Hwy 183; State Hwy 71 east of Interstate 35, from Riverside Drive to the intersection of Ben White Boulevard with I- 35; Parmer Lane; and Slaughter Lane.


Staff said those four locations were a consensus among Scenic Austin, Reagan and Lamar as being the “least objectionable” locations for the relocation of billboards. The two billboard companies, minus Scenic Austin, also want to place relocated billboards on Barton Springs Road at Riverside Drive, on Riverside Drive at Barton Springs Road and on FM 620, north of FM 2222 up to Anderson Mill Road, according to the staff report.


Phil and Carol Torgrimson, active in Council of Neighborhoods Along RM 2222 (CONA 2222) were on hand to protest the addition of scenic roadways. The couple was concerned about the placement of signs along scenic roadways, as well as locating billboards within 500 feet of a school that might eventually advertise alcohol. (The Design Commission agreed.) The couple also wanted to see that any relocated sign was either the same size or smaller than the original sign, rather than the reverse.


“This is really an entitlement to Reagan and Lamar to the detriment of the citizenry of this city,” Torgrimson said of the amendment. “We’ve already given a huge gift to the billboard people, but apparently it wasn’t a big enough gift and they’ve come back for more…We give them selected locations along the scenic roadways, and this becomes the camel’s nose under the tent.”


Commissioner Richard Weiss did raise the question of blocked billboards. If a building goes up on Fifth Street that blocks the view of a billboard, is that billboard entitled to be relocated? King said the ordinance currently has no prohibitions on which signs could be relocated – just where those signs can be relocated to.


Meehan said it was ridiculous to create a sub-category of scenic roadways – developed or not – that would be acceptable for billboards. Either it’s a scenic roadway or it isn’t. And it also gives billboard companies all types of rights while those businesses underneath the billboards must still comply with the regulations of signs in a scenic roadway.


“Creating a subcategory of ‘demi-scenic roadways’ is counterintuitive, to say the least, but it also provides a really unfair burden to the other businesses on that property that need to adhere to very specific sign limitations,” Meehan said.


Neither of the billboard companies sent a representative to discuss proposed revisions before the commission.


The Planning Commission will hear the matter tonight and the Council will hold a public hearing on changes proposed to the ordinance on Thursday. The Urban Transportation Commission also will weigh in on a portion of the ordinance related to mobile signs tonight.

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