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St. Petersburg works on deal to pluck 80 billboards, plant 8 digital ones

Most of the new digital signs would be put on Interstate 275 and its feeders and would display periodic public service announcements from the city. This digital billboard is at Tyrone Boulevard and Park Street.

Courtesy of Bill Jonson

Most of the new digital signs would be put on Interstate 275 and its feeders and would display periodic public service announcements from the city. This digital billboard is at Tyrone Boulevard and Park Street.

ST. PETERSBURG — At least 80 billboards in the city will be torn down over the next two years if the City Council passes an ordinance that would allow eight digital billboards in their place.

As part of the deal brokered between the city and Clear Channel Outdoor — which owns most billboards in St. Petersburg — media companies would be required to remove 10 of their traditional billboards for every digital billboard they install. That would reduce Clear Channel's 128 billboard faces in town to 48 within two years, Clear Channel vice president Tom O'Neill said.

The council could vote on the ordinance as early as August. If it passes, Clear Channel would remove 40 billboards over the next six months and the remainder within two years, O'Neill said.

The deal comes after months of negotiations with Clear Channel. City officials are weighing two plans for installing the eight digital billboards.

The first would allow six digital billboards on Interstate 275 and its feeders and two on 34th Street.

The second would allow eight on I-275 and its feeders.

Committee chairman Herb Polson said the second plan would help placate residents concerned about billboards in other areas.

"If we're willing to accept the fact of having digital billboards in our community, the sensitivities that we've heard about are minimized if they're all on the interstate ribbon instead of 34th Street," he said.

Digital billboards have been a contentious issue in St. Petersburg for some time. A 2010 ordinance allowing them on highways and major roads came only after years of legal battles with companies like Clear Channel. Even then, some council members expressed doubts about their safety, saying the bright, electronic advertisements would distract drivers.

The ordinance currently before the council sets operational standards for future digital billboards — among other constraints, messages can appear no less than 10 seconds apart to avoid distracting drivers — and requires digital billboard owners to display periodic public service announcements from the city.

At a Public Services and Infrastructure Committee meeting Thursday, committee members grilled city planners and Clear Channel representatives on the particulars of the plans, eventually deciding to send two options to a public hearing.

Council member Wengay Newton expressed concerns that the ordinance is too favorable toward large companies like Clear Channel.

"Once we'd do this, it'd pretty much lock everyone out," he said. "(Smaller companies) would need 10 billboards to get in on this contract."

But director of Planning and Economic Development David Goodwin said that was beside the point — Clear Channel already dominates the sky when it comes to billboards in St. Petersburg, and the new ordinance won't change that, he said.

He said he was pleased with the "balance" of the proposal overall, and that the public message requirements would present a "massive opportunity for the city."

Aubrey Whelan can be reached at awhelan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8316.

.Fast facts

Other items discussed in committee Thursday

• Great Explorations, the children's museum that as recently as last year owed the city tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent, is back on its feet, Chris Ballestra, the director of Downtown Enterprise Facilities, told the Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee. The museum is almost completely out of debt and has restructured its board of directors, he said, and has also hired a new president and CEO.

• Council member Wengay Newton wants to penalize drivers who park on their lawns. He says driving cars over the sidewalk damages sidewalks and water meters. He wants police officers to be able to ticket cars parked in yards; currently, officers can only issue tickets if they witness them driving on the sidewalk. Representatives from the city attorney's office, though, said the best way to deter drivers from parking on lawns is to increase fines. They conveyed that idea at the Public Services and Infrastructure Committee meeting. The council is still considering the measures.

St. Petersburg works on deal to pluck 80 billboards, plant 8 digital ones 06/11/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 11, 2011 4:31am]
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