Billboard Battle Continues

Does keeping Austin scenic mean keeping the billboards right where they are?

Scenic Austin says owners will keep billboards in place for years while they wait for sites elsewhere in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction - even if they become obscured by new buildings.
Scenic Austin says owners will keep billboards in place for years while they wait for sites elsewhere in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction - even if they become obscured by new buildings. (Photo by John Anderson)

Ever since the Johnsons pushed the 1965 Highway Beautification Act through Congress, Texans have been trying to get advertisements away from the roadside. Now, the city of Austin's latest attempt to reduce the number of billboards has hit a partial impasse over whether to move them out of Downtown, or wait for them to fall over.

The council was supposed to discuss a new ordinance aimed at reducing the impact and overall number of billboards at its regular meeting last Thursday. But on April 19, the ordinance co-sponsor Mike Martinez asked for the hearing to be postponed until May 8. "My stated goal from the very beginning," he said in a press release, "was to ensure that we 'unclutter' Austin as best we can." After lengthy consultation with city commissions, billboard companies, and environmental groups, Martinez is cutting back on his ambitious plan.

On Nov. 8, Martinez and Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley sponsored a resolution to dramatically amend the city code on ground transportation passenger services and the sign-regulations section of the Land Develop­ment Code. Under this amendment, sign owners, rather than property owners, would become responsible for registering their billboards with the city – and they could face fines for failing to do so. This is widely seen as an essential first step toward any meaningful billboard regulation, since there is no agreed count of the number of billboards in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction: City staff estimate 671, but Scenic Austin says 773.

The most significant new regulations aimed to reduce the number of billboards and get them away from Downtown. Since 2004, the city has allowed billboard owners to relocate signs, but there were no incentives to move them. The proposals made in November offered significant incentives to the ad industry, which Martinez's chief of staff, Bobby Garza, compared to "cap and trade" policies for pollution emissions: existing billboards could be relocated to new sites in commercial sign districts and to certain scenic roadways that, due to development, weren't so scenic any more. Moreover, the new billboards could be more than double the size of the original ones, from 300 square feet to 675 square feet, and existing signs could be raised or lowered for better visibility from elevated roads. To make this an omnibus billboard bill, Martinez and Dunkerley took the opportunity to tackle mobile advertising, by charging fees for taxis that sell ad space and banning altogether mobile billboards pulled by motorized vehicles.

But Martinez's plan seemingly pleased no one. The only change for fixed billboards the Design Commission supported was the shift to low-wattage lights. It opposed "the concept of relocation [and] recommends eliminating the concept entirely," and argued for extending billboard-free zones, which currently just cover residential structures, to include schools. The Planning Commission was less critical of relocation but still did not recommend several key elements, such as the scenic roadway changes.

Other stakeholders were also opposed. Scenic Austin, which was invited by council to comment, holds that relocation becomes a billboard preservation measure. "It's just moving them from one business corridor to another business corridor," said President Girard Kinney. The same discussion was held back in 2004, the last time the ordinance was amended: "We argued that if you allow one billboard to be relocated, those billboards that would have gone down because of land-use changes will not go down while they wait to relocate," said Kinney. He noted that, in the decade before relocation, 125 billboards were removed permanently; since the 2004 rule change, only 19 have been relocated, and there have been no permanent removals.

In the wake of this criticism, and with broader support for annual registration and the mobile billboard restrictions, Martinez plans to bring a new streamlined ordinance before council on May 8. For fixed billboards, the relocation clauses will be stripped away, leaving only registration, the green lighting requirements, and an online billboard database. The streamlined proposal keeps the mobile billboard ban, but the taxi ad clause is gone (it only passed through the Urban Transportation Committee on a narrow 4-3 vote, while Scenic Austin pointed out that, by singling out taxis and not including buses or pedicabs, the proposed sign amendments could actually violate equal application requirements of the First Amendment).

Before the announcement, Garza accepted the difficulty of getting anything done on "a policy that is steeped in all this emotion." But even with the most controversial section removed, the amendments could face severe criticism, beyond the Design Commission and Scenic Austin's continued criticism of any relocation policy and the billboard industry's opposition to mandatory registration and fines for failure to comply. John Anderson of local mobile billboard firm Anderson Adver­tising argues that mobile billboards offer the city the opportunity to cut down on the number of fixed billboards. His low-sulfur diesel vehicle, which uses scrolling banners, can carry up to 30 advertisements, he says, and he donates up to 30% of his inventory to nonprofits and public service announcements. If an Amber Alert is issued, "[w]e can have a billboard up in the area the next day," he said. Cracking down on the tiny number of dedicated mobile billboards, he argues, will do nothing to cut down on "bandit billboards" or vehicles covered in vinyl wraps, and enforcement would be nearly impossible. The solution, he argues, is registration for mobile billboards like the system proposed for fixed billboards.

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billboard ordinance, Mike Martinez, Betty Dunkerley, Scenic Austin

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