Friday, February 17, 2017

County PZA Rules Against Ugly Distracting Electronic Billboards

Good action! Thanks to the six PZA members who voted against electronic billboards in St. Johns County February 16th.

Posted February 17, 2017 12:02 am - Updated February 17, 2017 04:52 am
St. Johns County PZA recommends no-go on proposed digital billboards pilot program

The writing could be on the wall for the idea of allowing digital billboards in St. Johns County.

The Planning and Zoning Agency on Thursday excluded the component, which would include implementation of a two-year pilot program along Interstate 95, from its 5-1 recommendation to approve changes to signage regulations in the Land Development Code.

Board member Jon Woodard was alone in dissent, questioning whether the electric signs would be any more dangerous than traditional boards lit up at night and touting some potential benefits for business owners unable to take advantage of traditional boards due to cost or availability.

While industry representatives said going digital is another sign of the times, residents speaking in opposition said the boards are distracting by nature, costly and pose increased safety and environmental hazards over their canvas counterparts.

County staff had recommended approval of a two-year test run “to allow time for multiple electronic billboards to be erected and observed, then assessing the strengths and possible downsides of the program.”

The proposed changes would allow billboards using light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, to project multiple advertisements on a single billboard. Those advertisements would remain static on the billboard no less than eight seconds before changing, on an automated basis, to a different advertisement. Provisions would be included to prohibit animation, flashing, or the appearance of moving objects on the face of the billboards.

Locations of digital billboards would be along “appropriately zoned” parcels adjacent to I-95. There are also several limitations regarding separation between signs, distance from existing structures, as well as size and brightness.

The item was most recently discussed at the Nov. 1 County Commission meeting, along with other amendments to bring the county’s sign code into compliance with a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding content neutrality. (For more on the parameters of the proposed pilot program and what’s at stake, see Thursday’s edition of The Record or go to

In lieu of anything they considered to be a conclusive study, PZA members drew from their own experiences in talking through their thoughts on the electronic signs and what effect, if any, they might have on safety along an already dangerous stretch of road.

“We already have a major problem in our county, in our state and in our country with distracted driving,” Jeff Martin, board chair, said. “My personal experience tells me they pull distraction away for a longer amount of time.”

He recalled a recent family trip to the Jacksonville Zoo &Gardens after which he caught himself drifting on the way home while looking up at a digital billboard.

“I didn’t even care what it said, but I was looking,” he said.

Board member Dick Williams said with so many conflicting studies on billboards that have been done, he had to sit back and say it’s “only logical” they’re distracting.

Representatives with Outfront Media and Clear Channel, in contrast, said there was no correlation between billboards and crashes or that they were deemed “safety-neutral” by the Federal Highway Administration.

Don Kiceina, general manager for Outfront Media, said phones are the real culprit, not billboards.

“If they were truly dangerous, we wouldn’t be allowed to do them,” he said.

Brent Bolick, division president for Clear Channel, said distraction wasn’t as much of a problem as speed, illustrating his point with an anecdote of his own. He said he was driving in the middle lane on I-95 in St. Johns County only recently, going 78 miles per hour, and was being passed left and right, sometimes by people looking down at their phones.

As far as phones being more distracting than billboards, Williams said the argument was small potatoes.

“That’s a low bar,” he said.

PZA members also took issue with some permanent ramifications of the pilot program, considering any digital billboards permitted within the two-year window would be permitted to remain as nonconforming boards regardless of whether the program is extended by the County Commission upon expiration of the pilot.

Martin said he’d never heard of a pilot program that, if unsuccessful, gets to remain in place. He also said he would be concerned about expansion into areas beyond I-95 if a permanent program were to be approved in the future.

Board member Brad Nelson said he believes digital billboards will be the way of the future, perhaps with some adjustments and that he felt I-95, aesthetically, would be the place to put them.

“It’s a highway,” he said. “Plain and simple.”

Nelson said he didn’t find any compelling evidence regarding safety hazards either way, but that he opposed the program due to some lingering concerns.

“It’s not really a pilot program because we’re stuck with these,” he said. “We should be darn sure that’s what we want because there’s no going back.”

Joseph Cearley, special projects manager for the county, told PZA members just four existing, conforming boards along I-95 had been identified as eligible for replacement by a digital board for the pilot, all of which were owned by one outdoor media company.

Martin said the county would risk facilitating a monopoly if it went ahead with the pilot program under the current parameters and allowing only one company to benefit. (The board recommended the County Commission address this issue and others if it decides to move forward with a pilot program.)

There were other battles.

The program would feature a points-based swap-down system requiring removal of four to five traditional billboards for every one digital sign installed. Swap-down standards would apply to instances where a new digital billboard is installed or a digital billboard replaces a conforming traditional billboard. Nonconforming traditional billboards that have been grandfathered in would not be replaced with new digital billboards.

According to county documents, the current swap-down system for traditional boards has already reduced the number of active billboards within the county from 579 in the year 2000 to 301 in 2015, for an overall reduction of 278.

Industry representatives on Thursday said the boards already removed were “low-hanging fruit” and that they suspect that process has reached a plateau. They said digital boards would allow them to do more with less while drawing down on the number of traditional boards remaining elsewhere.

One resident speaking in opposition to the program called it a “devil’s bargain.”

As far as revisions to the county’s sign code for compliance with Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona, multiple categories and descriptions – particularly those dealing with purpose, subject matter and viewpoint – were reduced and/or consolidated. The court had ruled sign codes regulating “temporary directional signs” in a different manner than “temporary political signs” were content-based and, therefore, and unconstitutional regulation of speech.

“The purpose of the revisions is not to substantively change the sign code provisions or make policy determinations on signs, but only to make the sign code content neutral,” a county summary reads. “To the greatest extent possible, the previous sign code regulations were left untouched.”

Existing signs are expected to be grandfathered in as nonconforming signs and held to certain limitations.

The PZA’s recommendations and comments will be forwarded to the County Commission, which is expected to revisit the items at its April 4 meeting for a third and final hearing, required by statute to start after 5 p.m.
Proposed program For more on the parameters of the proposed pilot program and what’s at stake, see Thursday’s edition of The Record or go to

"County staff had recommended approval ". Sounds like some county staff are in somebody's pocket. Once these things are "temporarily" built and in place we will be stuck with them forever. How many Ripley's, tour train and lingerie billboards to we need. Anyone who says that a few of these will replace all of the old solid billboards is just plain wrong, since they are all "grandfathered". Thank you PZA for showing good taste. Let's keep St. Johns little section of I-95 and US-1 be a beautiful and clean environmental corridor instead of a distracting commercial assault on the senses and distraction to drivers.

First Coaster
"Temporary" - Yea, sure, just like taxes. For once, they made the right decision. That would be one in a row.

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