Billboard Discord Update

Editor’s note: Sign shops nationwide have been interestedly watching as the City of Minnetonka, Minn., and Clear Channel Outdoors have wrangled over the installation of digital billboards, after the city became concerned that the billboards might distract drivers. A sign professional and resident of the Twin Cities area, Geoff Michael originally reported on the conflict in the April 2007 issue of SignTech’s sister magazine,Sign Business. The following article looks at where things now stand in Minnetonka and elsewhere in Minnesota, as an example of the types of challenges the industry faces as digital billboards become more prevalent nationwide.

Since the brouhaha first got under way, things have, and haven’t, changed.

The court case between the City of Minnetonka and Clear Channel was finally resolved with the following caveats:

The two billboards that initially caused all of the problems are up and running and, frankly, they look very good. Contrary to the city’s concern, and as most of us in the industry expected, no accidents have occurred at either site due to driver distraction caused by the billboards. Two other sites in Minnetonka have since been converted to the new digital billboards as well.

Tougher Rules for EMCs
A question with the settlement is how it’s going to affect some other cities that were having similar experiences with Clear Channel.

According to John Gunyou, Minnetonka city manager, the city expects the settlement to serve as an example for other local municipalities. “We have had quite a few inquiries about how we were able to negotiate this removal of half of our billboards,” he said.

Regarding Minnetonka’s recently amended sign ordinance, it’s anything but friendly to either sign companies or their clients when it comes to the regulation of EMCs.

EMCs cannot change more frequently than every 20 minutes, EMCs can only be attached to freestanding signs, they cannot be more than 35 percent of the total freestanding sign area, and cannot display any animation or movement when changing copy or images. When a message changes it must be instantaneous, as with the digital billboards.

As a comparison, digital billboards can change messages/images every eight seconds (EMCs every 20 minutes) and the entire area of the billboard can be digital (EMCs can only occupy 35 percent of the space of the sign area).

The city justifies its position on the basis of Clear Channel’s decision to remove 15 of its conventional billboards. It would seem to this layperson that this could be a difficult position to defend if anyone took the issue to court. If drivers are going to be distracted by digital EMCs, then they are going to be distracted by digital billboards as well, right?

I guess the age of digital communica-tion on the roadways is the straw that broke the camel’s back. What with drivers chatting on their cell phones, eating or drinking, reading, shaving, or applying makeup in their cars, digital communication is just too much added distraction for motorists to handle.

Of course, changing time and temperature units, Amber Alert units, traffic/accident units, and even some community EMCs don’t seem to fall under the same guidelines.

Clear Channel filed suit in another city in the metro area, because the city had failed to not only issue a new sign permit but also gave Clear Channel until the end of October 2007 to remove the digital face it had modified on one of its traditional billboards.

The reason the city gave for its decision was that Clear Channel had illegally enlarged the sign, because the depth of the digital face had increased the total depth of the billboard by 6-8 inches.

Far-Reaching Effects
The effect of Minnetonka’s settlement can be seen in St. Paul’s recently enacted amendment to its sign ordinance. In January 2007, St. Paul imposed a one-year moratorium on digital billboards, taking a “wait and see” position regarding the Minnetonka and Clear Channel court case. The moratorium was due to expire at the end of January 2008.

St. Paul recently approved an amendment to its sign ordinance regulating the conversion of traditional billboards to digital billboards. Regarding that amendment and how it reads, one of the billboard company representatives said that as it now stands, there won’t be any digital billboards in St. Paul, because there won’t be any traditional billboards coming down.

Tom McCarver, a vice president for Clear Channel Outdoor’s Minnesota Division, said that two provisions of the ordinance make it unworkable for businesses.

One requires messages to remain static for at least 12 seconds, and the other is that six square feet of lighted billboard area or eight square feet of unlighted billboard area must be removed for every new square foot of digital billboard area. Additionally, all digital billboards must be at least one mile apart. Currently, St. Paul has approximately 600 billboards.

John Mannillo, co-chairperson of the anti-billboard group Scenic St. Paul, said he was pleased with the passing of the amendment. He went on to say, “But I don’t think this is the last you’ll hear of it.”

Dave Thune, a St. Paul city council member, said he would have liked more time to work with the billboard industry on a compromise, and hinted that the issue might not be finished. The amendment was passed so that at least something would be in place when the moratorium expired this January.

I’m sure this is not going to be the last we hear regarding the “battle” between cities and digital billboards. The eventual resolution concerns much more than just whether a community likes or dislikes them for whatever reason. It involves not only the advertising community and their clients, but obviously the entire sign community as well.

The Inconsistency of it All
What bothers me most is the inconsistency of it all. Some communities allow EMCs, some don’t. Some allow digital billboards, some don’t. Communities on one side of the road allow EMCs/digital billboards, communities on the other side of the road don’t.

Some communities allow the full use of animation and graphics, while some restrict all movement. Some communities allow changes every eight seconds, some allow changes every 12 seconds, some allow changes every 10 minutes, some allow changes every 20 minutes, and some allow changes to occur only once in 24 hours. In one local community, EMCs are allowed to change once every 6 hours in one part of the city, but require changes once every 8 hours in another part of the city on the same street and in a similar commercial atmosphere!

As individuals, do we change as we drive from the boundaries of one community to another? Do we become more distracted driving in one community than others? What makes city fathers and mothers think their community is different from others, especially when it comes to signs?

It’s not only digital billboards and EMCs that are regulated differently from one community to another. Why is it OK to have cabinet signs in one community but only individual letter signs in the adjoining community? Why is it OK to have a 40-foot-high pylon in one community but only a 25-foot structure in the adjoining community? Why is it OK to have an 8-by-8-foot-wide drive-through menu board in one municipality but only a 6-by-4-foot-wide menu board in an adjoining municipality?

I ask these questions not only as a sign person, but also as chairperson of the planning commission in the community in which I live. I’m constantly amazed at the amount of variations in the regulations of various community sign ordinances and as we all know, pricing of the permits varies just as much, if not more, than do the regulations.

The questions are rhetorical, of course. And I suppose that similar questions could apply to many other industries as well.

But maybe, just maybe, fewer regulations and variations might make doing business a lot easier for everyone involved.