The concept of ridding St. Petersburg of dozens of old billboards by agreeing to a few high-tech digital boards still has appeal — but only if the deal with a billboard company and an accompanying ordinance retain provisions to limit the impact on motorists and the environment. The City Council must stand firm against any attempts by the billboard company, Clear Channel, to whittle away at those protections.
With a Federal Highway Administration study of digital billboard safety due out within weeks, the City Council should see those results before agreeing to anything. The study won't make specific recommendations, but it will report the results of distraction tests done with drivers on roads where digital billboards are located. That could help the city determine where digital billboards can be safely located, how bright they should be and how often the sign faces should change.
Unlike traditional billboards, digitals have vivid LED screens and advertising messages that change as frequently as every six seconds. They are enormously profitable for billboard companies. Clear Channel, which owns three-quarters of St. Petersburg's billboards, approached former Mayor Rick Baker and said it would remove 110 of its 144 billboards if it could erect just 10 of the new digital boards along a handful of major roadways. A proposed ordinance allowing digital billboards in exchange for removal of old billboards has been drafted.
At a recent City Council workshop, Mayor Bill Foster said he has "a personal distaste" for digital billboards and will leave the decision to the City Council. The proposed ordinance has been improved from earlier versions, adding, for example, a 500-foot separation between homes and digital billboards. But the ordinance also would allow new traditional billboards along the interstates, which seems counter-intuitive when the goal is to reduce the number of billboards.
The separate agreement with Clear Channel remains a moving target, with numbers changing and Clear Channel making new requests. The city discovered the company doesn't have 144 billboards, but 132. Clear Channel now proposes to take down 88 old boards, not the original 110, in exchange for putting up eight digitals. It wants permits to build some digital boards before it removes all of the old boards. And the company said it would like signs taller than the 25 feet previously agreed upon.
Billboard companies are clever negotiators. The City Council should be wary of any changes and look for ways to get billboards removed without sacrificing safety or the city's charm.