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Council takes final step in changing billboard regulations

Tuesday, June 10, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Last week, the Austin City Council gave final approval to amendments to the city’s Sign Ordinance as they pertain to billboards that are unlikely to make everyone happy. However, it may make the issue go away, at least for a little while.


The Council passed on second and third reading a number of amendments to the ordinance first approved on April 9, making some changes to a rather arcane set of rules under which the city is attempting to reduce the number of billboards in the city. 


The major changes approved include:


  • A ban on mobile billboards with a two-year time frame for current companies to comply;
  • Once removed, a billboard cannot be replaced at the same location;
  • Billboard owners, not property owners, must register each billboard annually and pay a fee,
  • Owners must provide an annual inventory of all billboards owned and managed, and put identifying information on each billboard; and
  • Billboard owners must install energy-efficient lighting that conforms to dark skies standards.


The Council’s changes differ from those proposed by the Planning Commission, which voted on May 27 to recommend that the city eventually remove all billboards from within the city limits and the ETJ. The commission also wanted the Council to enact a provision that would dictate that the lifespan of a relocated billboard be limited to 10 years.


The replacement provision was important to billboard owners because they often have difficulty relocating signs when the land owner wants to contract with a different company or erect his own billboard. So, under the revised ordinance, if the billboard owner removes a sign, the property owner will not be able to replace it.


Bill Reagan of Reagan National Advertising told the Council the relocation (as opposed to replacement) provision was important because it would provide sign companies with a good reason to relocate signs. “We’re getting them out of certain areas such as neighborhoods and possible areas that might not be as commercially dense and moving them to more commercially dense areas. As a result of that you’re also capping the life of those boards. Otherwise the boards will stay there indefinitely,” he said.


But Carol Torgrimson, who along with her husband has advocated a complete ban on billboards in the city, encouraged the Council to adopt the Planning Commission’s recommendations.


“There are not very many people tonight, mostly because they thought it was a waste of time,” she said. “They thought you had already made up your minds. I have more confidence than that. I believe this Council is capable of taking input even at this late date and acting accordingly.”  She then asked the Council to adopt some of the Planning Commission’s recommendations, which billboard companies opposed.


Council Member Mike Martinez moved to approve the majority of items the Council passed on first reading, but removed the replacement provision.


“I think what we have tonight is something that puts us in a step forward in relationship to dealing with the outdoor sign and advertising industry,” he said. “It creates fees, fees that will go to our General Fund but that hopefully can be used to have stricter sign ordinance enforcement. It bans mobile billboards but it gives them a two-year period to either retrofit their vehicles, so that the advertisement is a third party service. . . It creates a database, an on-line database, so that folks can track billboards to keep up with any relocation, or age of the billboard.”


Mayor Will Wynn said he was inclined to make several amendments to Martinez’ motion, but realizing he would get no support for them, simply said he would oppose the motion.


In its first vote, the Council came down 4-2 for the motion, with Council Member Sheryl Cole and Wynn against and Council Member Jennifer Kim absent. However, after Cole conferred with Council Member Brewster McCracken, she asked for a revote, and the measure passed 5-1, with Wynn the lone dissenter. Had Cole refused to change her vote, the Council would have been unable to pass the ordinance on third and final reading until June 18. That meeting already has a crowded agenda.

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