City Hall — Council Debates a Bright Future



Council Debates a Bright Future

The Council clashes on the merits of digital billboards.


May 17, 2007

At the May 1 City Council meeting, Councilor Valerie Abbott, chair of the planning and zoning committee, sought a temporary moratorium on LED digital billboards and other outdoor electric business signs. “Our city sign ordinance is very old,” explained Abbott, concerning the need for a moratorium until city codes can be updated to address digital sign technology. The councilor said that the ordinances regulating outdoor advertising in Birmingham were written before electronic billboards existed. Currently, two digital LED billboards operate in Birmingham’s city limits, according to the councilor.

Discussion of the resolution for the proposed moratorium included a public hearing, allowing local residents to address the issue. Surprisingly, few opponents of digital billboards spoke, whereas several advocates expressed approval of the technology. Local radio personality and one-time mayoral candidate Frank Matthews claimed that more advertising generates more revenue for businesses. “When you look at the digital billboards, it gives somewhat of a twenty-first-century perspective to Birmingham overall. . . . I am sick of seeing antiquated ugly signs. I like that newness,” said Matthews. He then accused Abbott of bringing up the issue because she is reportedly running for mayor.

Chris Dehaven of Pelham sign company Dixie LED was present to defend the LED signs. He pointed to the billboard’s efficient use of electricity. “It is the emerging sign art, there’s no doubt about it,” Dehaven told the council. “Almost half of all the signs that we do are for cities, parks, schools, and churches. Only about half of them are actually used by business owners. Unfortunately, a lot of business owners would like to have it, but they don’t have the funds [that are] available in the public sector.”

“There’s a giant TV screen on the side of the road and you’ve got to make sure that these aren’t going to hurt somebody.” —Lisa Harris, executive director of Scenic Alabama

LED billboards change messages every six to eight seconds, and their intense brightness (which can be controlled) and high resolution are transforming outdoor advertising. Instead of buying space, advertisers can buy time on LED billboards. The billboards also give advertisers the ability to frequently and easily modify their ads.

Reverend Wanda Radford of the organization Mothers Who Want the Violence to Stop (Radford’s son was killed in August 2006 in a random shooting) praised Lamar Advertising for donating billboards that feature images of slain children and the promotion of cash rewards for information leading to solving the crimes. “If we had the money to put up electronic billboards, we would do so,” said Radford, who challenged the city to use digital billboards to assist in searching for homicide suspects.

A DVD presentation by Tom Traylor of Lamar Advertising touted the efficiency and impact of LED digital billboards. “Unlike other elements a driver encounters, digital billboards do not flash nor do they feature animation, motion video, or intermittent light,” according to the video. The billboards’ ability to flash Amber Alert notifications were also praised as a benefit.

Councilor Steven Hoyt is opposed to any moratorium. “There’s not been a moratorium on all these junkyards that appear in the community. Neither has there been one on the beer and wine licenses that we hand out every week, and we’re still trying to rewrite those ordinances and zoning issues. And I’m just not inclined to impede a business that is thriving. Aesthetically, it looks good.” Hoyt continued, “I’m distracted by all this grass that the state department doesn’t cut, going down the freeway . . . I really want to commend Lamar for stepping up their game, and it sets a precedent for others who want to get into the business.”

City attorney Lawrence Cooper, however, warned that the law could be lagging behind technology, and that safety and brightness issues could be distracting to motorists. “If we allow these billboards to continue to go up right now, they may be grandfathered in with some type of technology that is not useful,” said Cooper. “So please be aware of the law trying to play catch-up with issues that we’re presented with.”

A current Federal Highway Administration study has not been completed, which is the reason the planning and zoning committee suggested a moratorium until potential LED sign distractions and subsequent dangers are determined, according to Abbott. The councilor explained that the committee wants to study whether LED digital signs should be allowed at certain intersections where there is a lot of dangerous traffic—such as Malfunction Junction—or if they should be allowed near residential areas. “We’re not saying, ‘Ban the signs.’ We’re saying, ‘Let’s stop and look at the issue and make sure we’re doing the intelligent thing in our city.’ Other cities have banned them completely, [or] they’ve put restrictions on them,” said Abbott. “So that is the reason for asking for the moratorium, so that we have time to look at the issue before we have a whole city full of signs and can’t do anything about them because we’ve already allowed them.”

Vestavia Hills revoked a permit for a digital billboard last year after it was determined that the sign failed to comply with the city’s sign ordinance. Lamar Advertising has filed an appeal to have the sign reinstated.

“It was in a pretty bad location on Rocky Ridge Road,” said Rebecca Leavings, acting city clerk for the city of Vestavia Hills. “It’s in litigation right now . . . Our sign ordinance says no changing images or animation or flashing—or something like that. So it comes down to what’s going to be an interpretation by the courts as to whether or not that’s what was [in violation]. But it was in a poor location. Also, it was right down on the road.”

Digital billboards are prohibited in Hoover, according to Stan Benton, assistant director of building inspections services for the city. Signs with electronically changeable messages, flashing lights, and reader boards (except for public service, time and temperature signs, and scoreboards at athletic facilities) are prohibited, as are any new locations of billboards of any type.

“The point is that the city council is responsible for the health, safety, and welfare of the general public,” said Lisa Harris, executive director of Scenic Alabama, in a telephone interview. “It is vital to the traveling public, to our residents and our citizens that nothing hazardous is going to happen [as a result of] those [LED billboards]. We have trucks [dropping] steel coils, we lost an overpass from a crash of a tanker, we have trucks coming through there. [The council] needs to at least know what the safety issues are and make a decision based on that, not just based on ‘aren’t these things wonderful and flashy!’ You need to make sure that no one is going to have a wreck looking at them before you allow them to go in. . . . There’s a giant TV screen on the side of the road and you’ve got to say, if you’re a responsible elected official, ‘Let’s make sure that these aren’t going to hurt somebody.’”

Lamar Advertising has requested permits for two more LED billboards. The Birmingham City Council approved a two-week delay. At press time, the moratorium was scheduled for a vote at the May 15 council meeting. &