BY MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
ST. PETERSBURG — After more than three years of negotiations, digital billboards were rejected by the City Council in a vote early this morning.
Council Chair Jim Kennedy and council members Wengay Newton, Steve Kornell, Herb Polson and Karl Nurse rejected a deal to remove 80 traditional billboards and replace six regular billboard faces with six digital billboard faces. It would have included $2.1 million worth of advertising space over 20 years for city public service announcements.
Overall, it would have meant 6.4 square feet of traditional billboard faces would be replaced with one square foot of digital, which wasn't enough for dozens of residents who spoke in opposition to the deal.
"I can turn off my television, but I can't turn off a billboard," said Bill Bucolo, a Park Street neighborhood resident. "They are going to pollute our airspace and no one will be able to turn them off."
A far smaller number of residents who spoke Thursday said they supported the plan because it meant fewer overall billboards. And some said they liked how the billboards looked.
"I'm less concerned with the narrow view of some residents who are anti-billboard and more concerned with people who don't have jobs," said David McKalip, a neurological surgeon. "These boards promote business in a low-cost way."
Beginning under then-Mayor Rick Baker, city attorneys had been negotiating with billboard companies to allow the digital signs, a new generation in outdoor advertising. The new signs use screens that advertise messages that change frequently, some every 10 seconds. That makes the signs more profitable for the billboard companies,
But some say the ads, because they are brighter, are more dangerous and distracting for motorists and annoying for nearby homes.
Digital billboards have already been permitted in Tampa, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, Pinellas Park and South Pasadena.
But the signs have run into sustained opposition from the Council of Neighborhood Associations in St. Petersburg. Members of the group have written letters and made phone calls to council members.
During an Aug. 4 public hearing where 20 people spoke against the plan to allow the signs along Interstate 275 and its feeder streets, the council voted 5-3 to allow the deal to move forward, with Kennedy, Kornell and Nurse voting against it.
Some who allowed the deal to move to Thursday's second hearing, however, said they could only do so if it was changed to allow a "sunset clause" that would require the signs to come down at a later date.
Clear Channel Outdoor, which had previously objected to such a clause, agreed to take the digital signs down in 20 years and replace them with traditional signs.
"Part of our calculation was that was what it would take to get this plan done," said Todd Pressman, a local lobbyist for Clear Channel.
That wasn't good enough, however, for CONA officials, who said it wasn't an actual sunset clause because Clear Channel got to replace the signs.
"A 'sunset' is that the signs come down — period," said Travis Jarman, a CONA representative.
In a discussion that last about three hours, Kennedy and Polson said it would be more effective to review the city's entire sign ordinance, which is scheduled next month, before recommending changes to a portion of it by allowing digital billboards.
"If we're going to do this, we should look at the entire ordinance," Kennedy said.
Kornell said he disapproved of the way the council learned what the deal was. He said that, beginning under Baker, administrative staff met with Clear Channel representatives, and excluded residents from participating.
"I won't accept any deals that come out like that," he said. "That's not democracy."
Nurse and Newton seemed more conflicted and didn't explain why they voted against the deal.
Council members Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner and Bill Dudley voted to approve the plan.
Dudley said he believed in free enterprise. A supporter of red light cameras because he thinks it makes streets safer, Dudley dismissed concerns that digital billboards were distracting.
"A pretty girl walking down the street is distracting, too," he said. "Let's outlaw that, too."
Danner said there was a threat the state would now pass a more onerous law that would allow Clear Channel to erect more digital billboards.
"We have an opportunity to rid our city of blight," Danner said. "The harm is to do nothing."
Curran said the deal, far from being negotiated in a backroom, had been put together quite openly.
Afterward, Pressman said he didn't know what Clear Channel would do next except for maintain its existing inventory of billboards. He said unlike other jurisdictions in Tampa Bay that have recently approved the billboards, St. Petersburg proved to be quite different.
"The citizen input was higher than we saw elsewhere," Pressman said. "It was a matter of emotion overcoming facts."
Maureen Stafford, who helped lead CONA to defeat the deal, said afterward that it was far from a victory.
"It's not a win," she said. "I hope we can use this neighborhood energy that we showed on this issue and move forward and remove existing billboards."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org