Janesville64.2°

Council to ponder regulations on digital billboards

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
February 23, 2008
— Six seconds, 10 seconds or 30 seconds.

Those are the intervals between image changes on electronic billboards various interests are recommending to the city council as members consider regulations for the signs.


Lamar Outdoor Advertising installed six digital displays on existing billboards in July.


Because of what was then cited as aesthetic and safety concerns, the council put a moratorium on additional electronic billboards until staff could research the technology.


City staff recommends ads change in intervals of no less than 30 seconds.


The plan commission recommends 10 seconds.


Sign company representatives are requesting six-second intervals.


Ads on the signs now change every six seconds, which is the minimum permitted by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.


“The proposed ordinance is designed … to balance the variety of interests and issues including community aesthetics and values; public safety and the desire of the outdoor advertising media and sign companies to utilize technology,” Gale Price, building and development services manager, wrote in a memo.


Brad Yarmark, vice president and general manger of Lamar Outdoor Advertising, cites a study in Ohio that found electronic billboards cause no hazard.


But Price said that study was done on signs along an Interstate rather than urban streets. Price relied on research from the American Planning Association.


“When looking at an urban environment, the study identifies the average viewer reaction time for all signs within a typical urban, multi-lane streetscape as 11 seconds,” Price said. “It appears that the infinite changing of messages every six seconds would significantly compete with the driving public and potentially cause a traffic hazard.”


Yarmark disagrees.


“I would contend that the (the Ohio study is) relative because it was done on the same technology, and the fact that they’re on the Interstate is really not an issue when considering traffic on the Interstate is going much faster (with) less reaction time.”


Yarmark said six-second intervals have been set as the norm in Wisconsin.


And the city uses six seconds in its current ordinance to regulate billboards with mechanically rotated images, while electronic message signs at businesses are regulated at four seconds.


“The city is saying those can change every four seconds, but it’s not a safety issue,” Yarmark said. “Their safety argument is really weak.”


Staff is recommending that the interval for billboards with mechanically rotated images be changed to 30 seconds, too, Price said.


And he defended the four-second interval allowed for electronic message signs at businesses, saying they are smaller than billboards and display less information.


Price said billboards can be profitable with longer changing intervals, noting that Illinois law regulates ads at 10-second intervals. At 10-second intervals, Price figured 8,640 displays per day compared to 14,400 displays at six-second intervals.


Price admits any sign ordinance includes a “level of arbitrariness, and it’s really focused on community values,” he said. “What is the value and mind sight of the community, and how is that articulated?”


Staff also recommends:


-- The new ordinance apply to the six existing electronic billboards. Yarmark believes those should be grandfathered in.


-- Electronic billboards be separated by 1,500 feet as compared to the 750 feet that separates traditional billboards.


-- The display face of an electronic message sign be at least 1,200 feet from residentially or agriculturally-zoned land unless OK’d by the plan commission.


-- Two existing digital billboards be removed. The traditional billboards that were changed to electronic billboards had been nonconforming, so they could remain only if the structures were unaltered. Price said the company altered the framing to install the digital billboard. The city would allow the company to revert the billboard to a standard billboard, Price said.


THE NEXT STEP

A public hearing on an ordinance regulating electronic billboards is scheduled during the Janesville City Council meeting on Monday, which begins at 7 p.m. in City Hall, 18 N. Jackson St.



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