Digital Billboards Face More Opposition

Digital billboards are a boon for the outdoor advertising companies who own them, allowing them to display multiple messages, adjust ad creative in mid-campaign, and charge advertising clients by daypart. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily popular with the people who live around them, as a quick survey of local debates over digital signage -- in cities and towns large and small, all around the U.S. -- will demonstrate.

In Massachusetts, the Greater Boston Food Bank has encountered opposition to its plans to convert two static billboards on top of its building to digital signage. The nonprofit points out that the digital boards, which would reach commuters on I-93 as well as south Boston, will provide revenues that can be used to further its charitable endeavors. Meanwhile, Clear Channel is proposing to convert a number of static boards on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority property along I-93 between Boston and Somerville to digital displays.

But in both cases, local civic groups have raised the same concerns often heard in other debates, including aesthetic damage (“billboard blight”) and safety issues arising from distracted driving. A number of studies, including a four-year survey performed by the state of Massachusetts, have shown that digital billboards don’t result in distracted driving, but opponents say more research is needed.



On the other side of the country, the town of Yakima, Wash. implemented a six-month moratorium on new digital billboard construction, to give the local City Council time to hold a public hearing on the matter. Outdoor advertisers are arguing that the digital “blight” lamented by many Yakima natives (Yakimites?) is actually the result of unrestricted use of on-premise digital signs by local businesses, including restaurants, but councilors may not be convinced that the distinction matters.

Moving to Kentucky, Lamar Advertising is facing a legal threat to two new digital billboards located along U.S. Route 27 near Nicholasville. The town’s planning director says the digital billboards violate a city ordinance that forbids digital signage from using a varying intensity of moving lights, or casting light on public streets or highways in a way that could constitute a traffic hazard. Lamar argues that the city ordinance is invalid, the city is contacting the owners of the property where the signs are located, and a court case may be in the offing. Meanwhile in Batavia, Ill., city aldermen are debating whether to change city zoning laws to allow Lamar to install a digital billboard on property owned by the city -- a move opposed by the city’s community development director, who cited possible traffic safety issues.

Last month the city of Glendale, Ariz., rejected a similar proposal to revise its digital billboard policy, although that won’t stop a local outdoor advertiser from erecting two new digital billboards that were previously permitted. Developers wanted the city to revise the policy to allow digital billboards on a piece of property annexed from a neighboring township in 2007, but residents said they would have a negative aesthetic impact on a number of nearby neighborhoods.

Last, but certainly not least, in Los Angeles the digital billboard saga continues, following a court order requiring Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor to turn off digital signs built under a previous agreement with the city government, which the court said was illegal. Now the same court is hearing arguments that the billboards should be torn down, which would obviously be a major setback for the outdoor advertisers. Meanwhile, the city council -- with an eye to potential revenues from digital billboards -- has ordered a “Visioning” group to formulate a new policy that would possibly allow some new digital signs to be built, perhaps on city property. But the visioning group, which brings together outdoor advertisers, businesses, and community organizations, has yet to achieve consensus.

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