Digital billboards are gaudy, bright and sometimes distracting. But if St. Petersburg is to have them, city officials — after years of on-again, off-again negotiations with two major billboard companies — have arrived at a palatable compromise. The glowing, newfangled signs would be restricted to the interstate corridor, and dozens of traditional billboards would be removed citywide. That's a reasonable tradeoff the City Council should accept.
It's been nearly two years since then-Mayor Rick Baker revealed he had been negotiating with Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor, the two national companies that own the overwhelming majority of the city's billboards. Time has worked to the city's advantage. The digital billboard proposal before the City Council has narrowed options for the billboards' locations and maintained several safety features. The council could vote on the plan after two public hearings scheduled for Thursday and Aug. 18.
Under the proposed ordinance, digital billboards only would be allowed along Interstate 275 and its feeders at the same sites as existing billboards. A company could only erect a digital board after it removed 10 traditional billboard faces within the city limits.
The city's proposed contracts, already negotiated with Clear Channel and CBS, spell out what that would mean in practical terms: a dramatic decluttering over the next two years of some of the city's major thoroughfares, including Fourth, Martin Luther King, 34th and 49th streets, and Tyrone Boulevard and 38th Avenue N. Clear Channel could erect up to eight digital faces along the interstate after removing 80 traditional billboard faces; CBS could erect one after removing 14 traditional ones.
The proposed ordinance also would outlaw moving or scrolling images on the digital billboards and would require the static images be displayed for a minimum of 10 seconds — longer than Tampa's and Hillsborough County's requirements but far shorter than Pinellas County's one-minute rule, which could be significantly shortened under changes the County Commission approved last week. The digital billboards will have to be 500 feet from neighborhoods and historic properties, unless the historic property is separated from the sign by the interstate. They will have to be 2,500 feet apart and situated so that a driver cannot read more than one digital sign at a time.
Two other stipulations in the public interest: The digital boards could be used by government during emergencies such as hurricanes. And the changes would also ban new traditional billboards from the city except along the interstate and its feeders, insuring the city's beautification gains aren't short-lived.
Many opponents of the plan — including the Council of Neighborhood Associations — would prefer the city simply outlaw billboards with a deadline for when they must be removed. Clearwater tried that approach and embroiled itself in years of legal battles. That dramatic step would not declutter St. Petersburg nearly as quickly as this proposal could in just two years' time.
Baker deserves credit for launching this negotiation, and City Hall staff under Mayor Bill Foster have improved on it. Adding nine digital billboards along the interstate wouldn't particularly enhance St. Petersburg, but they would be tolerable in those locations. Ridding city streets of 94 traditional billboards would be well worth the trade.