Billboard companies seeking ordinance to go digital

Billboard companies seeking ordinance to go digital
Rendering of a proposed billboard on Kings Avenue

Opponents invoking 1987 referendum to keep City free of ‘blight’ –

Sign, sign everywhere a sign … and if efforts by some local advocates are any indication, it’s a sure sign that they don’t want them. Proposed legislation could reverse components of a 1987 charter amendment passed by a voter referendum which stopped the construction of new billboards and removed hundred of others from neighborhood roadways.

Draft ordinance 2013-493, introduced in July by Councilman Richard Clark, would allow companies lobbying for the bill, including Clear Channel Outdoor, and CBS Outdoor to set up new billboards, potentially in different locations, as old billboards are removed. Karl Sanders, an attorney hired by Clear Channel Outdoor, drafted the ordinance.

Rendering of a proposed billboard on Kings Avenue

Rendering of a proposed billboard on Kings Avenue

In the 1980s, a group of concerned citizens frustrated with visual blight from billboards campaigned for a charter amendment that prohibited any new billboards and created a timeline for many existing billboards to come down.

Alicia Grant, an Avondale resident who was one of the founding directors of Scenic Advocates for Jacksonville, said before the legislation was enacted there was approximately 1,500 billboards, compared to less than 500 today. “The city was plastered with billboards. We didn’t want the first impression of the city to be billboard-laden.” Voters agreed.

Billboard companies, unsatisfied with the amendment, responded by suing the City – all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.  Still, legislation was not overturned.
Meanwhile, the City entered into 12 separate settlement agreements with the companies, each with different provisions. However, there is one critical provision that is universal to each of the settlement agreements. It states that the billboard company “specifically waives all rights to challenge the validity, constitutionality, or enforceability of the 1987 Charter Amendments, the other Charter Amendments, and the City’s Sign Ordinances.”

According to the Office of the General Counsel, of the 10 settlements remaining (two of the companies are no longer in business), the agreements made with Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor pertain to 373 of the 451 billboards in existence.

As some of those settlement terms favorable to the billboard companies are set to expire, industry lobbyists claim that the expiration of those terms prompted them to initiate legislation in order to clarify how the industry would be regulated and help avoid future litigation with the City of Jacksonville.
Currently, Scenic Jacksonville has a $32 million lawsuit against Clear Channel Outdoor seeking remedies for alleged breaches of settlement agreements and the charter amendment. Fines from these alleged violations accrue at a rate of $500 per day, per sign.  If the courts side with Scenic Jacksonville, the City would be the recipient of the proceeds from the litigation.

District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer, who chairs the Land Use Zoning Committee, said it’s premature to consider such legislation with lawsuits currently pending.
“From my perspective, passing the ordinance will add to the confusion,” Boyer explained. “When I look at whether there is a need for the legislation, whether there is a serious gap when one of these settlements expire…hearing from the General Counsel’s Office, that is not the case. We have regulations in the charter that are applicable. My take is the ordinance doesn’t solve anything.”

The proposed ordinance would allow all new billboards to be digital, making Jacksonville the first city in Florida to do so.
According to Grant this translates into more than 180,000 square feet of electric advertising space on such roadways as Hendricks Avenue in Miramar Shopping Center, San Jose Boulevard, Park Street, parts of Riverside Avenue, and most of Roosevelt Boulevard. She said these digital messages could change every eight seconds, 10,800 times a day and can be put up within 200 feet of people’s homes.

“This ordinance would give billboard companies rights they don’t have and take away citizens’ rights,” Grant said.
Bill Brinton, an Avondale resident and attorney who worked on the original charter amendment almost 30 years ago and helped draft the 12 settlement agreements on behalf of Citizens Against the Proliferation of Signs, now known as Scenic Jacksonville, is currently representing that organization in the lawsuits over enforcement of both the settlement agreements and charter amendment.

He said he has never seen “such arrogance” by the billboard industry that is trying to nullify the charter amendment voted for by the people of Jacksonville. “That agreement does not expire,” Brinton explained. “There are provisions that come to an end within the agreement.”

The proposed ordinance also grants billboard companies credits for taking down existing billboards. They would be allowed to use these credits to set up new signs on roads that have always been billboard-free, such as J. Turner Butler Boulevard and Hart Expressway, and bring back billboards in places such as Hendricks Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard.

For instance, CBS had a static billboard that was removed on the north side of I-95 as part of the Overland Bridge Project. They applied to the Downtown Development Review Board to have a replacement billboard erected – this one digital, on Kings Avenue in San Marco. While it was denied, CBS is appealing the outcome to the Downtown Development Authority.

Brinton said the proposed two-sided digital billboard, which shows an ad for Subway in the CBS rendering, would ruin the views of residents living in The Strand, The Peninsula and the soon to be developed East San Marco, as well as drivers traveling on I-95.

“Driving on I-95 north there is a beautiful view of downtown not marred by billboards,” Brinton said. “They are all gone. Now, CBS wants you to buy a Subway sandwich every eight seconds. That is not what Jacksonville wants.”

Roadways in neighborhoods including Murray Hill, St. Nicholas, San Jose and Ortega can potentially see new billboards if the legislation is approved. Other neighborhoods such as Riverside, Avondale and San Marco would remain exempt from billboards because of the existing historic zoning overlays.

Grant is concerned about neighborhoods that would not be protected by the historic zoning overlay. “This creates a system of haves and have nots,” Grant explained. “Communities not protected by historic overlay will have blight.”

While the charter amendment cannot be changed, it can be nullified by 10 votes from City Council members. At a workshop last month, all six citizens’ planning advisory councils told City Council they were opposed to the new signs. Other groups in opposition include the Mayor’s Keep Jacksonville Beautiful Commission, Late Bloomers Garden Club, Mandarin Community Club, Scenic Jacksonville and the Sierra Club of Northeast Florida.

According to Grant, Riverside Avondale Preservation Group sent out a survey and found 100 percent of participants in opposition of the ordinance.
Currently, the Office of the General Counsel thinks there is no necessity for this legislation. At the October meeting LUZ and Public Health and Safety, agreed to delay action until at least November so city lawyers can address questions.

“We need more answers from the General Counsel,” Boyer said. “No one has presented a compelling enough case to change what we have. Most elected council members will give a lot of credence to what the community wanted.”

“Today we have roadways that are becoming billboard free. It may take 100 years, but it can happen,” Brinton said. “All the billboard industry needs is 10 councilmembers to overturn the amendment. It’s a good lesson in democracy. This effort [by billboard companies] could change the equation without putting it on the ballot.”

By Lara Patangan
Resident Community News

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