Mayor Rick Baker's proposal to rid St. Petersburg of 110 billboards and allow up to 10 digital ones is an appealing trade-off. There are some portions of a proposed ordinance and contract with billboard owner Clear Channel Inc. that the City Council should closely examine today. But the mayor is amenable to the necessary changes, and the revisions should allow the deal to move forward.
St. Petersburg all but outlawed new billboards in 1992, but there are roughly 180 billboards in the city that could remain for years and that can be replaced in some situations. Some 80 percent of the billboards are owned by Clear Channel, and many are on city streets where their removal would significantly reduce visual blight.
The tentative agreement calls for Clear Channel to remove 110 of its 144 billboards in return for the opportunity to erect up to 10 digital boards on I-275, interstate feeders, 34th Street and Tyrone, Gandy and Roosevelt boulevards. The signs could change every 10 seconds — less frequently than the six seconds allowed by state law.
Among the issues in the proposed ordinance that Baker has agreed to address and council members should review:
• Any digital billboard should replace an existing sign at the same location and should be no taller than the current sign.
• There should be a minimum of 2,500 feet between digital billboards, and drivers should not be able to see more than one at a time.
• All future deals with billboard companies for digital billboards should require the removal of existing signs in the proportions that the Clear Channel deal would require.
There also should be clearer timetables for taking down billboards in return for gradually putting up digital signs. A draft of the Clear Channel deal that could allow the company to take down 50 signs and start putting up all 10 digital billboards is too generous. And requirements that the billboard companies run city government announcements on their digital signs should be negotiated with each company, not required by an ordinance.
Opponents of the proposal argue that the city should wait for a federal study of digital billboards scheduled to be released next year. Pinellas County commissioners recently chose that approach, but they did not have a Clear Channel deal to remove dozens of billboards on the table. The study is not likely to be the final word on digital billboards, which critics argue are too bright and can be safety hazards because of the changing messages. St. Petersburg's proposals are stricter than state law, and the city says Clear Channel has agreed to make adjustments if new research emerges on traffic safety. That promise ought to be in writing.
The City Council should focus on these issues in its workshop today, and it could take a final vote next week at its last meeting before Baker leaves office. But council members should take the time to ensure the details are right, even if the discussion stretches beyond Baker's term. Eliminating 110 billboards throughout St. Petersburg for up to 10 digital billboards on a handful of major roads is compelling — but the restrictions in the fine print have to be clear.