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Pasco County should resist making deals with digital billboard companies

Pasco County should be in no rush to start cutting deals with billboard companies. | This week, a representative of Clear Channel asked commissioners to consider allowing new digital signs if the company agreed to take down an unspecified number of its traditional billboards.

The county shouldn't bother responding until after a Federal Highway Administration study of digital billboard safety is released. The data collection concluded this summer and an agency spokesman said Wednesday that the report is expected to be made public in the next several weeks.

It won't make specific recommendations but will report the results of distraction tests done with drivers on roads where digital billboards are located. That could help determine regulations on digital billboard locations, brightness and how frequently the sign faces should change.

But even with that information in hand, the county shouldn't hurry to cater to outdoor advertising companies. For starters, more than just Clear Channel own billboards around Pasco County. And, the proliferation of the signs is the private sector's own creation as it rushed to beat a county ban on all new billboards more than a decade ago.

The county's sign ordinance also prohibits so-called LED screens that change messages. Despite those regulations, digital billboards have popped up in at least two locations — along U.S. 41 and at the intersection of Little Road and State Road 54. The county has yet to explain publicly how that happened.

In 2007, the Federal Highway Administration gave states the green light to approve digital billboards, as long as appropriate regulatory controls were in place. Since then, private companies have sought to replace their old signs with the new, highly profitable signs that change messages as frequently as every six seconds, allowing billboard owners to sell multiple advertising spaces in a single location.

A Clear Channel representative asked Pasco commissioners to follow the lead of other neighboring governments that have allowed the digital boards. But commissioners need a broader view beyond the industry's spin.

In Tampa, the City Council was pressed into developing a new ordinance and allowing digital boards to settle a long-running lawsuit after the city required companies to take down billboards, but offered no relocation options. There is no such lawsuit in Pasco.

In Pinellas County, commissioners opted to wait for the federal study before considering a proposal to relax its billboard controls.

And, in St. Petersburg, the negotiations became a moving target. There, Clear Channel originally it said it would remove 110 of its 144 billboards if it could erect just 10 of the new digital boards. Later, the city discovered the company doesn't have 144 billboards, but 132 so Clear Channel proposed to take down 80 old boards (actual signs, not structures) if it could put up eight digitals, a 10 for 1 swap. Still, it wanted signs to be taller than the previously agreed upon 25 feet.

Pasco shouldn't fall for any trickery. While removing some of the roadside clutter in exchange for fewer signs is worthy of discussion, the county is bargaining from a position of strength and shouldn't acquiesce to anything that will be dangerous to motorists or add to visual pollution.

Pasco County should resist making deals with digital billboard companies 12/09/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 9, 2010 5:19pm]
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