Several of our communities in the Tampa Bay area are dealing with the question of digital billboards.
Pinellas County has imposed a delay of up to a year on new ones, waiting for a federal safety study. The city of Tampa is wrestling with the issue, too.
As for St. Petersburg, the question must be answered immediately. Mayor Rick Baker has struck a proposed deal to allow them; the deal is in front of the City Council.
The mayor's deal with Clear Channel Communications involves a 10-for-1 swap.
The company, which owns 144 of the roughly 180 billboards in the city, would take down 100 signs, in exchange for 10 digital billboards on major highways — Interstate 275 and its spurs, 34th Street, and three boulevards: Gandy, Tyrone and Roosevelt.
The city's ban on billboards within 500 feet of a residential area would stay in effect. The new billboards would be larger, up to 14 feet by 48 feet.
Should the City Council approve the mayor's deal? I'd suggest there are three levels of consideration:
(1) The aesthetic tradeoff, which is somewhat a matter of opinion. The mayor feels that it is worth the trade, getting rid of 100 billboards around the city in exchange for 10 digital signs on the highways. If you hate digital billboards with a passion, you could make the opposite case.
(2) The safety question. Are digital billboards too distracting to drivers? There's a major federal study coming out in 2010, and critics of the St. Petersburg deal argue that any decision should be delayed (which is the path that Pinellas County took).
On the other hand, there already is a mountain of conflicting studies, and the 2010 report is not going to make new recommendations about rules, placement and so forth. The city's proposed rules for digital billboards do contain good safety requirements.
(3) On the most detailed level, there are some loose spots in the new ordinance and deal with Clear Channel the City Council is being asked to approve.
Personally, I wouldn't approve the ordinance without these changes. However, the mayor and his staff seem amenable to making them:
• Making it clear that all future requests for digital billboards — not just the Clear Channel deal — require a swap of existing signs. The practical effect would be to limit future digital billboards to existing owners.
• Making it clear that any digital billboard must be on the spot of an existing sign.
• Including a specific, 2,500-foot minimum distance between signs, in addition to the requirement that drivers not be able to see two at once.
• Clearing up confusing language over maximum allowed height, and a loophole that allows extra height in case of visual obstruction such as trees.
Lastly, a suggestion from the group Scenic St. Petersburg makes sense: We're talking about an industry known for challenging sign ordinances in court. Would it hurt to hire the Smartest Billboard Lawyer in the World for advice on whether this ordinance has unintended consequences?
This brings us back to the issues of whether to wait for the federal safety study, which is a reasonable thing to argue, and whether you just don't like digital billboards, which is a personal position.
Me, I'm a digital kind of guy. I'd plug the loopholes, check with a smart lawyer and take the deal. No plugs, no deal.