There are major concerns with a proposal to allow digital billboards along the Interstate in St. Petersburg. They became clear when some alert residents and neighborhood leaders figured out what had not been obvious to the city administration when it recommended that they be permitted.
That's why representatives from 20 neighborhoods turned out at the Aug. 4 City Council hearing to object to the plan, even though it could have resulted in the removal of 94 conventional billboards from less-traveled roads elsewhere in town. And that's why the Council of Neighborhood Associations and other groups urge the council to reject the plan when it votes this Thursday.
As the Times stated in a recent editorial, digital billboards are gaudy, bright and sometimes distracting. The question was never asked, as council member Steve Kornell observed during the hearing, "Do we want digital billboards in our city?" The assumption was always that we'd have them — after all, other cities all around the Tampa Bay area have them. Why not St. Petersburg?
Because St. Petersburg is unique, a word used 18 times to describe our city in the city's Comprehensive Plan. We are a waterfront, arts, historic and green community, and we stand out because we do not fit the mold. Allowing "televisions on a stick" some 100 feet in the air to tower over our roadside is not in keeping with our city's image, especially given the content of some of the billboards we see. That's a non-starter.
In addition, we value safety. A 2006 research study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that taking one's eyes off the road for more than two seconds, for any reason not directly related to driving, significantly increased the risk of a crash. In 2008 a NHTSA analysis showed that 16 percent of fatal crashes involved distracted driving in some form. A new study specifically addressing digital billboards is pending.
Further, a few astute folks started looking into the signs being traded in only to discover that, in one case, 10 of the 14 signs being proposed to be traded for one digital billboard were only 72 square feet each in size, and they were being traded for a 672-square-foot digital sign. On a square footage basis, this is about half as good a deal as Pinellas County just got in its recent negotiations.
Finally, during negotiations the city administration was outgunned by the expert attorneys hired by the billboard industry. Many important protections — such as the sunset provision suggested by scenic advocates — were summarily rejected by the industry during discussions with city staff. Some council members weren't even aware of these negotiations on proposed protections until they were brought to their attention by a consumer attorney, retained by concerned citizens in the days ahead of the public hearing. Once they became aware, the majority decided they didn't want to be associated with allowing these signs to take up residence on our Interstate — perhaps forever. Rather than a swap of conventional billboards for controversial digital billboards, we should be working on a proposal to eliminate all billboards. Such a proposal has been prepared by community advocates. We all look forward to working with council to implement this plan.
In the days ahead of the public hearing, council members received hundreds of e-mails and letters objecting to the plan, including communications from the following organizations that have also endorsed this position: Agenda 2010/PACT, Council of Neighborhood Associations, Florida Public Services Union, League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club.
Council members are to be congratulated for doing their homework and for listening to their constituents. We encourage them to continue doing so when they meet Thursday to hear additional public comment and to take a final vote.
Maureen Stafford chairs the Land Development and Historic Resources Committee of the Council of Neighborhood Associations in St. Petersburg. The views in this essay are supported by Gwendolyn Reese and Gypsy Gallardo of Agenda 2010/PACT; Darden Rice of the St. Petersburg League of Women Voters; Rudy Scheffer of the Suncoast Sierra Club; and Rick Smith of the Florida Public Service Union.