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Neighborhoods push Council on billboard ordinance

Friday, May 9, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Neighborhood groups urged the City Council last night to make good on its 25-year-old promise to get rid of billboards inside Austin’s city limits.


Peter Torgrimson, representing CONA 2222, and his wife, Carol, promised to continue the fight against billboards across the city and not just along scenic roadways, a proposal that already had been stripped from the proposed ordinance.


“To give these billboard companies new entitlements would be a step in the wrong direction,” Torgrimson told the Council. “These new entitlements would only lead to a new generation of billboard blight, and I don’t think that’s part of the legacy this Council wants to leave this city.”


Carole Torgrimson was angrier than her husband, accusing Council of pursuing a stealth campaign when the resolution to amend the ordinance passed on consent last November. Commercial interests, she said, dominated the stakeholder process. She later said she was representing herself, not the neighborhood.


“We have been accused of being NIMBYs,” said Torgrimson, referring to the acronym for Not In My Back Yard. “The scenic roadways are not on the table now, and we’re still here. We want billboards out of Austin, period, and we’re not going to back off.  We’re going to do everything in our power to get them out of Austin, and I hope you would be on board with us in that effort.”


Bill Reagan, president of Reagan Outdoor Advertising, offered a mild protest during comments on the ordinance, saying he would not address some of the issues of outlawing billboards, although the subject was clearly a Constitutional one.


If the goal was to remove signs, then billboard opponents should support the implementation of the sign ordinance, Reagan said. Reagan’s billboards are grandfathered. The only legal way to get rid of them – despite assertions from billboard opponents – was to buy them. The relocation ordinance, at the least, can cap the life of some billboards and remove others.


Under the relocation portion of the ordinance, a total of 19 signs have been removed, Reagan said. More are pending. The ordinance is doing its job, Reagan said.


“Or we could go back to the previous 25 years, where we were incentivized to keep our billboards,” said Reagan, noting that billboards were a business like any other business in the city. “These are assets that continue to produce returns for us every year, and landowners continue to get income from the signs.”


Council Member Mike Martinez headed off potential opposition to the sign ordinance amendments, offering up a six-point amendment to the proposed ordinance changes. Those changes included the elimination of the definition of elevated roadways; a two-year phase-out of existing mobile billboard businesses to give them time to sell their vehicles or change their business models; and adopting the recommended energy efficiency lighting standards for existing and future billboards.


Additional amendments included the requirement that sign owners both register and provide an inventory of existing signs; the creation of an online database to provide citizens with the ability to provide feedback and file complaints; and the revision of the caption of the ordinance to encapsulate the various amendments offered by Martinez.


The seventh amendment, which Martinez was not allowed to propose, was the exploration of options to remove the replacement section of the ordinance. The relocation portion of the sign ordinance will be sent back to the Planning Commission and returned to Council for new consideration on June 5.


Kate Meehan of Scenic Austin said the proposed ordinance changes had riled up neighborhoods more than any other action in recent memory. She predicted a paradigm shift in the involvement of neighborhoods in the process to draft an ordinance that would reduce and eliminate billboards.


Council members unanimously approved the ordinance on first reading and sent the section on relocation back to the Planning Commission. Council Member Jennifer Kim noted her full support for the Planning Commission recommendations, including size limits on billboard relocations.

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