Digital billboards are unique as visual pollution. They can distract drivers on the road and blast light into surrounding neighborhoods. If Tampa wants to allow digital billboards within the city limits, then city officials need to think through which roadways would be appropriate and how to protect the neighborhoods and public safety. The City Council has not done the homework to have that discussion today, and it needs to position the city to negotiate a better deal.
City attorneys will ask the council to approve one of two agreements that could pave the way for digital billboards. The document before council today would settle a 13-year legal battle between the city and two outdoor advertising companies over rules that forced them to take down billboards. On its face, the deal offers a framework for settling a long-standing dispute, and it includes many valuable elements, such as requiring the removal of dozens of additional billboards.
But the agreement also would form the basis of a separate deal allowing the digital billboards. Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor could opt out of the settlement if they felt that the digital billboard ordinance, which the council won't take up until December, does not go far enough.
There are at least three problems here. First, if the two deals are linked, why move ahead without first crafting the language of a digital billboard ordinance? Agreeing to a deal on traditional billboards is meaningless if the advertisers later find the digital restrictions too tough. So why bother, and why hand all the negotiating leverage to the billboard companies?
Second, the proposal being floated for the digital billboards is far too permissive. Too many would be allowed along too many roads, and in places the billboards do not belong. Among the locations: downtown, all of Dale Mabry Highway and part of Henderson Boulevard. The city has made great strides in recent years in cleaning up some of its ugliest thoroughfares. This would roll back the clock.
Tampa's starting point should be the deal St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker worked out in his city: Ten digital billboards for the 100 traditional billboards that Clear Channel would dismantle. Baker's plan also requires 10 seconds before a sign's message may change; Tampa would allow the messages to change every 8 seconds. Clearly there is room to negotiate a longer window that would be less distracting to motorists.
Finally, neither the city nor the public has adequately thought through the impact. The public has had only a limited chance to weigh in. The police department has not been consulted on any public safety concerns. The city and the billboard industry say they do not believe a new state law relaxing restrictions on signs would open the gates even more, but neither side knows for sure.
These are two issues here: settling the billboard case and opening the door to digital advertising. But the two decisions before the council are linked. They have enormous implications for the city's look, character and quality of life. No one will miss spending another month or two casting about for better models on how to restrict digital signs. The clients here are not the billboard companies.