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Tampa residents fight City Council deal to put electronic billboards in neighborhoods

TAMPA — Electronic billboards that glow brightly against night skies are increasingly becoming part of urban streetscapes.

But residents urged the Tampa City Council Thursday to reject an agreement that would allow electronic billboards practically in their back yards.

"The potential impact this could have on my neighborhood is, in my opinion, disastrous," said Jeff Harmon, who lives in Seminole Heights, where traditional billboards line roadways, including Hillsborough Avenue and Interstate 275.

The council voted unanimously to delay a decision for two weeks on an agreement with two billboard companies.

The city code now forbids electronic signs. But the agreement, settling 10 years of litigation, would allow CBS and Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. to replace traditional billboards with digital ones that are like giant TV screens and feature constantly changing messages.

"I'm not opposed to the digital signs per se. They're here. They're not going to go away," said Tom Scott, chairman of the council.

But he said it's still unclear how much their light would intrude into people's homes.

Scott said he has driven by a digital sign on Dale Mabry Highway that's outside the city limits.

"You can see that sign literally 2 miles away. It is a very, very, very bright sign," he said.

Combined, CBS and Clear Channel have more than 1,300 billboards in Tampa.

Negotiations began after the city required the companies to take down billboards to improve the look of some roads but offered no options for relocation.

Since then, digital billboards have become state-of-the-art technology, allowing companies to sell one space multiple times.

If approved, the agreement would allow one digital sign to be put up for every four traditional signs that come down.

Residents also were concerned Thursday that the digital billboard issue is part of a lawsuit settlement and not an ordinance.

"If it goes wrong two years down the road, you can't change it," said Randy Baron, who lives in Seminole Heights.

Council members said they want city attorneys to look into developing an ordinance to regulate digital billboards, separate from the settlement agreement.

Council member Mary Mulhern noted that Los Angeles residents revolted after the City Council there approved digital billboards. "This was in Hollywood, where they like bright flashing lights," she said.

Council member Gwen Miller said she trusted that Tampa city attorneys had negotiated a good settlement and she didn't think it wise to spend more money on legal wrangling with the billboard companies.

Attorneys for the billboard companies declined to comment.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Tampa residents fight City Council deal to put electronic billboards in neighborhoods 02/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 5, 2009 11:16pm]
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