CLEARWATER — Pinellas County has begun loosening its restrictions on digital billboards, despite opposition from neighborhood groups.
To make digital signs more lucrative, Clear Channel has asked to be able to change messages every six seconds instead of the county's current limit of 60 seconds.
The County Commission informally agreed last week to move ahead with a compromise that would allow changes every 15 seconds. It would coincide with lifting a moratorium on digital billboards the commission imposed in December. The board still must vote on a new ordinance this year.
Pinellas had imposed the moratorium to await a federal study on the safety of the signs. Now that the study's release has been pushed back until late this year, the county came up with its own proposal that gives billboard companies more leeway.
Clear Channel has pressed to expand its digital signs across the Tampa Bay area. It won approval to put the signs in Tampa this year, and St. Petersburg is considering allowing the signs as part of a proposal requiring the company to reduce standard billboards.
But members of the Council of Neighborhood Associations in St. Petersburg and Scenic Florida oppose the county's proposed changes, raising questions over motorist safety and visual blight.
"I hear things like our businesses want to have this … if all the businesses stand out, then what you have is the Las Vegas strip. I question whether Pinellas County wants to look like Las Vegas," said Travis Jarman, an official with both groups. He urged the county to consider seeking payments for the signs "if you're going to sell your soul."
Maureen Stafford, another CONA member, urged the board to aid the group's opposition to digital billboards.
"We're looking to you to pave a path for us. Because our job at our level will certainly be a lot easier if you have driven a path for yourself on the county level," she said.
Pinellas already allows the digital signs in its county code, with seven in the unincorporated areas and highways it oversees.
Critics warn that the lower standard could end up conflicting with results of the federal study. However, commissioners agreed to move forward with the 15-second interval with a promise that the formula producing it will be "scrubbed" by staff members to make sure it is the safe number.
"I guess I'm not really sold that the 15 seconds is the right number," said Commissioner Ken Welch, who questioned assumptions behind the formula.
Commissioners also want to speed up Clear Channel's planned removal of existing billboards over a few decades, and allowing the faster intervals could provide a necessary bargaining chip, Commissioner Susan Latvala said. The schedule is part of a settlement after long fights between the industry and county.
Clear Channel lobbyist Todd Pressman said the billboards are safe at six-second intervals. The county has found no direct link to safety issues at current digital locations, though nighttime accidents increased near one, said Pete Yauch, Pinellas' public works director.
At Park Avenue and Tyrone Boulevard, there were 5.3 accidents a year after the sign went up, more than the 3.4 the year before. But Yauch stressed other factors, such as drinking and driving, could figure in that as well.
Other communities allow quicker intervals, Pressman said. For example, Hillsborough allows signs to change every eight seconds.
"We believe the proof is in the pudding. You have them in your back yard," Pressman told the commission.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.