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Subcommittee hears comments on Billboard Ordinance

Wednesday, April 16, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

If you polled the crowd at last night’s Codes and Ordinances subcommittee of the Planning Commission, Austin’s two billboards companies appeared to rank fairly low on the audience’s popularity index.


Last week, the Planning Commission refused to hold a public hearing to consider changes to the sign ordinance, citing the need to consider the proposal—and public discomfort with what some neighborhoods believed to be a threat. 


Last night, Commissioner Jay Reddy attempted to corral the discussion on the proposed changes in the ordinance, take input from the audience on where they wanted to see billboards (not in their neighborhoods) and move any additional proposed changes forward to the full Planning Commission next week so those changes could be sent on to Council within the next month. Staff plans to put the item on next Thursday’s Council agenda.


Even with Reddy’s attempts to limit discussion, the conversation about ordinance changes took well over two hours. For the most part, the subcommittee stayed true to the original ordinance. They opposed larger signs being relocated to commercial sign districts; opposed additional height allowances for elevated roadways; recommended against allowing the face size of relocated signs to be the aggregate of removed signs; and recommended against replacing landowners with sign owners when it came time for sign registration.


Most of the two-dozen audience members represented those neighborhoods that included the four potential scenic roadway locations for relocated billboards.


Striking the recommendation to put relocated billboards on certain segments of four roads designated as scenic roadways was one of the biggest points. It has been the billboard companies’ argument that the current ordinance offered few relocation options and that these four locations already were in commercial developed areas. The argument on the other side of the issue was that the “scenic roadway” designation was intended to control signage along roadways and not to designate a particular road as being developed or not developed.


Scenic Austin was part of the negotiations to designate those four locations. Board president Girard Kinney, who was at last night’s meeting with staff member Kate Meehan, stressed that Scenic Austin would never voluntarily recommend new locations for billboards. Instead, the group was presented with the option of trying to come up with the best compromise on the “least egregious” locations if forced to choose them.


“I don’t want people to think that here are the places we’re throwing under the bus,” Kinney told the group. “But the sign industry has been very greedy for them.”


A number of subcommittee members – and especially Mandy Dealey and Tracy Atkins – are strong billboard opponents. For instance, Atkins asked whether the fee for billboards could be increased to create a fund to buy, and remove, some of the biggest billboard offenders. Attorney David Lloyd said “no.” And, as Kinney pointed out, the price is high. One billboard removed in Fort Worth recently was bought for $750,000, which would be a combination of the cost of the sign and its potential revenue.


Kinney has argued that the city has seen few results from the most recent amendment to the billboard ordinance passed in 2005, which included the relocation clause. Between 1999 and 2005, attrition took out a number of billboards. In 2005, however, a relocation clause was added to the ordinance that would allow billboard companies to move billboards out of less desirable areas to more desirable areas, if the company would agree to remove two billboards for each single billboard relocated.


Scenic Austin has argued that the lack of progress with removing worst offenders was proof the relocation idea simply didn’t work. Those who represent the billboard companies say the problem is that city staff who are opposed to billboards have simply refused to enforce the relocation portion of the current sign ordinance.


As Reddy admitted after the subcommittee meeting, the path the Planning Commission must take is one that goes as far as state law will allow. Billboard companies do have rights and an especially fierce lobby at the State Capitol.


For instance, the subcommittee has proposed a distance requirement for relocated billboards: at least 1,000 feet from residential or multi-family uses and 800 feet from schools. The current requirement under the city ordinance is 500 feet.


The logic behind this proposal was that the city should not promote billboards hawking alcohol near schools. And since the city cannot regulate the content of billboards, the next logical step would be to regulate billboard locations.


The catch, though, is that the city cannot regulate so thoroughly that billboard companies have no places in the city for relocation. Limit the location of billboards in statute too narrowly – and this would be new billboards and not existing ones – and it becomes a Constitutional free speech issue, Dave Sullivan told his fellow commissioners.  


The concept of who should register the billboards also led to a lively discussion. Less than 20 percent of the estimated billboards in the city currently are registered with the city. Many attribute that to the fact that the landowner, rather than the billboard company, registers the billboard. The ordinance amendment would be to have the billboard companies register the signs instead of the landowners.


That proposal led to a lively discussion of who would benefit from shifting the burden from the landowner to the billboard company. Audience members argued that the shift might give the city more revenue for billboard enforcement but it would take a bargaining chip away from the landowner. A sign must be registered with the city before it can be relocated. Attorney Nikelle Meade, who represents Reagan, argued against such logic, saying that the agreement on a billboard is no different than any other lease arrangement and that either side could decide to terminate that agreement at any time.


In the end, Lloyd noted that trying to prove one side should have an advantage over the other was no better than getting involved in a private third-party civil dispute. The city’s role is to regulate billboards and not to involve itself in private lease negotiations.


The subcommittee did make some additional recommendations: Each billboard clearly should bear a plaque with the sign and date of registration. All billboards should use dark skies lighting, which minimizes light pollution. And the billboard companies will be required to provide an annual inventory of billboards, with the longitude and latitude of billboards as well as the information on the property owner.


Additional recommendations also were offered for the relocation of billboards. The subcommittee wants additional billboards to come down before a relocated billboard goes up. A relocated billboard would be guaranteed a life of 10 years, with an additional six years for each additional billboard of an equal or greater size removed from other locations.

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