Sunday, January 25, 2015

Showdown In Digital Billboard Debate Tomorrow Night

The controversial digital billboard ordinance, Proposal No. 250, drafted by lobbyists for the benefit of the billboard industry heads back to the Metropolitan and Economic Development Committee for a vote tomorrow night. Neighborhoods across the City of Indianapolis have united in opposition to convince members of the City-County Council to reject an attempt by the industry to get the council to approve new zoning rules it wants the Metropolitan Development Commission to adopt.

Neighborhood groups are particularly peeved that lobbyists went directly to City-County Council members and conducted private discussions to rewrite the City's billboard zoning regulations in an attempt to sidestep the normal process set out in the law. State law vests the Metropolitan Development Commission and its staff with the authority to write zoning laws through a transparent process that requires public input. Lobbyists for billboards have been successful in selling many council members on their approach without any public input, aided by their deep pockets to make large campaign contributions and spend lavishly entertaining council members, in a process that locked out the public until the introduction of Proposal No. 250.

The neighborhood groups make a compelling argument that the new zoning rules proposed by the billboard industry are badly flawed and will undoubtedly result in costly litigation. The rules are clearly written to financially benefit the billboard companies behind it at the expense of potential competitors. Proposal No. 250 guarantees a certain number of conversion from static to digital billboards each year but only certain billboard companies would have the right to erect digital billboards. The guarantees written in the law would make it difficult for future city leaders to halt the erection of more digital billboards without encountering costly litigation. Locked out billboard companies successfully sued the City of Los Angeles when it adopted a similar ordinance in 2006 which limited the right to erect digital billboards to certain companies.

Opponents of digital billboards argue digital billboards impair driver safety by distracting drivers, and their bright lights adversely impact the aesthetics of nearby neighborhoods. The rules would allow for interactive ads which encourage drivers to text a code in order to qualify for a product discount. Sequencing ad messages in a manner reminiscent of Burma shave signs of bygone years will be permitted, further compounding the problem of driver distraction. The proponents tout the fact that digital billboards make public service announcements possible, such as Amber alerts for missing children, but the proposal doesn't actually require the companies to run those ads.

Neighborhood groups have discovered that many current static billboards eligible to be swapped out and replaced with digital billboards were never properly permitted or were oriented to the wrong street. Existing sign locations are grandfathered in, eliminating the need for an improvement location permit. Some current signs are situated closer together than appropriate standards might allow. Neighborhood groups have also uncovered the fact that billboards are likely not being taxed in Marion County currently as personal property, even though billboard companies have to be compensated for them as real property when they are subject to condemnation proceedings. Unless the property owner reports the existence of the billboard on their property, no personal property taxes are being paid.

The proposed swap-out conversion rate in Proposal No. 250 is the elimination of two static billboards for every new digital billboard put into use. Opponents point out that this conversion ratio is much more favorable to billboard companies than what the industry has negotiated with other municipalities. They give several examples, including St. Petersburg (15:1); Tampa (10:1); St. Paul (6:1); Orlando (4:1); and San Antonio (3:1). Opponents note the trend is towards requiring greater swap-out ratios, not less. In addition, many municipalities require the billboard companies to enter into revenue-sharing agreements with the city, a requirement noticeably absent from Indianapolis' proposed rules. At a minimum, the council members who negotiated this deal with the billboard companies' lobbyists left a lot of money laying on the table.


Anonymous said...

This digital bill board proposal is not in the best interests of Marion County taxpayers.

Therefore, watch most of the Democrat and Republican Councilors vote in favor.

Anonymous said...

For unknown reasons there are billboards off of US31 on the far south side of Indianapolis and one in Indianapolis just east of US31 on County Line RD. Both of those at night are so glaring and bright as to cause night-vision impairment.

Of particular concern is the fact there is a hospital nearby and old-folks homes within 5 miles, meaning that those with vision difficulty/impairment are likely to travel this area. Imagine those glaring bright lights all over the city at night.

It will be a traffic safety hazard.

Anonymous said...

I think you hit most of the arguments, but maybe came up short on mentioning the money angle, which isn't like you.

These puppies will generate about ten times the income, per billboard, above what the static signs make. Doing this in a pre-election period is a real temptation for councilors who know they're going to face expensive campaigns in a gerrymandered city that will have more than few contested primaries. The billboard industry could fund a lot of campaigns.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Anon. 9:01, That's implicit in my discussion of how these companies will financially benefit from the new rules and aren't required to share revenues like other cities have required digital billboard companies to do. I agree that I could have hit that point harder. The campaign contribution angle can be discussed in a separate blog after we see how the votes shake out.