NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County Commission Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey didn't need a billboard to deliver her message about the outdoor advertising industry.
"I think you guys are being played," she told commissioners Mike Moore, Mike Wells Jr. and Jack Mariano. "You're being played by a very savvy industry."
Starkey's pointed commentary came during a 100-minute debate last week as commissioners wrestled yet again with an industry-requested proposal to lift the county's 17-year ban on new billboards. Doing so would allow billboard owners to swap some of their static signs for new, illuminated digital boards with rotating messages.
But, after two public workshops and two public hearings, a commission majority decided they hadn't heard enough. On a 3-2 vote, the commission delayed the matter until mid January, effectively cutting departing Commissioner Ted Schrader out of the final decision.
"I don't see any movement on their part," Schrader said of the billboard industry. "I'm comfortable with passing this today. Quite frankly, they want something that I'm not willing to give to them."
Commissioner-elect Ron Oakley, who will replace Schrader as the District 1 board member, assumes office Nov. 29. He sat through the initial public hearing in October.
"If you gave up five (for one digital), you're talking about going from 33 (on Interstate 75) to six or seven. You know that looks better, but I'm not sure of the numbers," Oakley told the Tampa Bay Times after the commission meeting.
The hearing turned into a public negotiation between Tom O'Neil of Clear Channel Outdoors and the commission over the number of billboards to come down in a swap for new digital boards and how frequently the electronic messages could be rotated. An early version of the proposed ordinance called for removing 14 billboard structures for each new digital sign, but the county staff previously acknowledged that figure was too high.
Last week, the county considered a revised proposal calling for a 10-for-1 swap based on square footage of the signs, rather than billboard structures or sign faces. For instance, a new 672-square-foot digital sign would require a company to take down 6,720 square feet of existing signs. The proposed ordinance would allow the digital messages to rotate every 30 seconds.
Industry representatives, however, panned a square-footage formula — after advocating for it at the prior hearing — and made a counter offer of a 5-for-1 sign-removal ratio, with digital messages rotating every 8 seconds. They also objected to putting the digital signs strictly on state roads, which would exclude new billboards from high-traffic county roads in the affluent Trinity area.
"They're telling us what their company will do. That's backward," Starkey told her fellow commissioners. "We're not invested in outdoor media. We're here to do what's right for our citizens."
Starkey, as a private citizen, was instrumental in lobbying commissioners for the billboard ban in 1999. During the hearing, she and Schrader offered an 8-for-1 swap, and Starkey later suggested 7-for-1 without gaining a concession. A representative of Outfront Media, the largest provider of billboards in Pasco County, said he had not been authorized by his company to go beyond a 5-for-1 swap.
According to updated numbers presented at the meeting, the county has 509 billboard structures holding at least 1,018 advertising signs. On state roads, the inventory varies from 133 billboard structures along U.S. 19 to 33 along Interstate 75. Combined, there are 343 billboard structures on those roads plus state roads 52 and 54, U.S. 41 and N Dale Mabry Highway, accounting for nearly 172,000 square feet of advertising space.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, the county will not be rid of static billboards because of the sheer volume of outdoor advertising around Pasco.
"We will always have static billboards," said Elizabeth Blair, senior assistant county attorney. "That is the realty of the situation."