Naked City

Outcry Over Billboard Plan

Like the sprouting of bluebonnets in the spring, quibbling at City Council over billboard regulations is a recurring feature of Austin life. The hometown of Lady Bird Johnson has tried, but not often succeeded, in making the former first lady's beautification legacy a reality in her own back yard. And local activists say a seemingly inoffensive change to local sign ordinances, to be considered by the City Council April 1, will represent a giant step backward.

Under current rules, no new billboards are supposed to be erected in Austin, which has as its stated goal becoming a billboard-free city. But existing billboards can be replaced as long as the new sign is 25% smaller than the old one (or additional signs are removed). Austin is the only major Texas city that allows sign replacement, and despite tough rhetoric over the years from city leaders, the reality of almost-constant lawsuits from billboard companies has kept the city from taking more drastic action.

The latest proposal, being sponsored by council members Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken, would allow existing billboards to be relocated to more "acceptable" locations in approved commercial corridors. The idea – which got its start, in part, with the Austin Revitalization Authority's desire to get rid of an unpopular billboard on East 11th – would allow new billboards to go up, as long as they aren't in urban renewal areas or near residential developments, historic structures or districts, or scenic roadways. Despite the fact that the new rules, if enforced properly, wouldn't increase the actual number of billboards in Austin, advocates led by Scenic Austin have been aggressively lobbying against the proposal, and the Planning Commission has unanimously rejected it.

Local architect Girard Kinney, the president of Scenic Austin, has outlined several objections to the plan, noting that the neighbors of the new billboards will certainly notice them and not be happy, and that even carefully designated "acceptable" areas may be transformed during the 30-year life of the average billboard into places where the signs will be most unwelcome. But most important, Kinney notes, is the fact that a relocation provision would eliminate the easiest and most effective way for Austin to become billboard-free – through attrition.

"As land values and building densities increase and as land uses change," Kinney wrote in a letter to the council earlier this month, "eventually virtually every place where there is a current billboard will one day be a site where the billboard is not ... compatible with a new or expanded use." (Such is the case on East 11th.) In such situations, Kinney continues, investors have bought the lease for the billboard and taken it down without replacement, thus moving Austin toward its goal. "This method works and there are a number of ways it can be enhanced," he writes, but "is completely lost when billboards are allowed to be relocated. No community committed to lowering the number of, and eventually eliminating, billboards should ever allow relocations."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

billboards, sign ordinance, Scenic Austin, Girard Kinney, replacement, relocation

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