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Council orders investigation into ban on aerial banners over city

Friday, June 28, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council moved forward with an investigation into whether the city can legally restrict, or outright ban, aerial advertising Thursday afternoon.


Council voted 5-1 to approve the resolution, which was sponsored by Council Member Kathie Tovo. Mayor Lee Leffingwell voted against the resolution, and explained that even if restricting or prohibiting aerial advertising was legal, he wouldn’t support it. Council Member Bill Spelman had gone to catch a plane to attend a National League of Cities meeting in Washington DC.


Don Arsenault is the owner and operator of the only Austin-based banner towing company in Austin. He said that in his 37 years of business, he could count all of the complaints against his business on one hand, even if it was missing some fingers. But, he said, in the last 18 months he had received several complaints, almost all from the Zilker Neighborhood.


“What’s the difference here? As far as I can tell, the difference is Formula One,” said Arsenault. “Formula One came to town and they started operating helicopters in the Zilker area… I think I’m receiving a lot of fallout from that.”


Arsenault said the Federal Aviation Administration controls civil airspace in America, and explained that as long as planes were operated safely, there is nothing to stop them from flying anywhere in the country.


“Having spent many years, a career in  aviation, I was utterly shocked that there was any question about whether a locality, like a city, could regulate federal airspace in any way,” said Leffingwell. “”It’s just baffling to me.”


Tovo said that her understanding was that there were examples of municipalities that had passed restrictions or outright bans on aerial advertising in the past. A city in Ohio, a township in Pennsylvania and the city and county of Honolulu were offered as examples.  The ban in Honolulu was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 2006.


Arsenault pointed to now-banned billboards that are grandfathered in the city, noting that after 37 years of operating his business, “if they are grandfathered, I should be great-grandfathered.”


Tovo explained that the item simply meant they would be looking at the issue further, not passing any regulations immediately. She said that she hoped Arsenault would be involved in the process launched by the vote.


After hearing a complaint from Zilker resident David King about the noise generated from the banner planes, Leffingwell noted that it wasn’t the banners that generated the noise but the planes, and suggested a measure banning planes might get at the problem more effectively.


King said that his desire was not to put anyone out of business, but explained the noise prevented normal conversation in his backyard. He said with Austin seeing more events each year, the problem was getting worse.


Arsenault said that his operation wasn’t tacky, and wasn’t usually annoying either. But it seemed that the issue was bigger than aviation routes.


“This is America. This is the land of the free. I spent four years in the Air Force defending that,” said Arsenault. “This is Austin, Texas and there is no place on the planet that embraces civil liberties and individual rights more than Austin, Texas does.”

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