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Tampa to allow digital billboards as part of settlement

TAMPA — Digital billboards, with their flashy array of pitches, are coming to Tampa.

The question is how many and where will they go.

City code now forbids the electronic signs, considered state-of-the-art technology in the billboard world. But an agreement settling 10 years of legal wrangling with two companies would allow them.

City Attorney Chip Fletcher on Thursday asked the City Council to approve the settlement, which also requires the companies to remove nearly 90 billboards from Kennedy Boulevard, Florida Avenue and other streets.

But the council delayed the vote until Dec. 18 so it can have more time to address such concerns as how close the digital billboards can be to homes.

"This is a very significant issue," said council member Linda Saul-Sena. "It's a policy change under the guise of a settlement agreement."

The pact would permit the electronic signs 200 feet from homes. Hillsborough County already permits the signs.

The agreement also would allow the signs to change images once every six seconds. City code limits image changes on small electronic signs to every five minutes.

If someone complains that light from a billboard is intruding into a home, the billboard companies will have to plant trees that will block some of the light within five years.

Council member John Dingfelder said he wants to see a map showing where the new signs would be allowed and which billboards would come down.

Negotiations with billboard owners Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. and CBS began after the city required the companies to take down billboards to improve the look of roads but offered no options for relocation.

The companies say they also have removed more than 180 billboards from the city for reasons other than aesthetics, such as road widenings. The agreement outlines options for some to go back up, with one digital sign allowed in exchange for every three that came down.

Saul-Sena questioned if that tradeoff was too generous to the companies, who can sell space on one digital billboard to multiple customers.

She said she wanted information on struggles to control digital billboards in Los Angeles before the council votes on the agreement.

There, Clear Channel and CBS filed lawsuits after the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance banning new billboards. A settlement reached in 2006 allowed the companies to convert 850 print billboards to digital. But after hearing from residents who complain the bright screens distract drivers and shine into their homes, the council is considering a moratorium on conversions so city officials can craft new rules for regulating the billboards, reports the Los Angeles Times.

In Tampa, neighborhood leaders told the council that, among other things, they want the allowable distance from homes increased and they want to know the number of signs that qualify for relocation.

"We're looking for more protection for residents," said Randy Baron, who lives in Seminole Heights. The signs, he said, "have the potential to make the city look more like Las Vegas or New York than Tampa."

Attorneys for CBS and Clear Channel could not be reached for comment.

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

Tampa to allow digital billboards as part of settlement 11/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 24, 2008 8:47pm]
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