County pulls digital billboards proposal


The St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously at Tuesday’s meeting to approve the withdrawal of a controversial proposal allowing digital billboards following intense community opposition and letters from the billboard industry requesting it be withdrawn.

“It’s a win,” declared Ponte Vedra Beach resident Mary Kohnke, who has been advocating against the digital billboards for the past several months. “I think it’s the result of a tremendous amount of research that was done by the (residents’) group.”

The proposal would have created a two-year pilot program allowing digital billboards along I-95. County staff introduced the provision in November as part of proposed changes to signage regulations in the Land Development Code. The county was forced to revise its overall signage ordinance after the U.S. Supreme Court found in Reed v. Town of Gilbert that a Gilbert, Arizona municipal ordinance restricting content of a church’s signs was unconstitutional.

St. Johns County Special Projects Manager Joe Cearley said the billboard industry approached the county about digital billboards, and since the county was already in the process of rewriting the ordinances, it made sense to work the provision into the proposed ordinance.

Since the proposal’s introduction, however, a group of St. Johns County residents has banded together against the digital billboards, claiming the signs are distracting and unsafe for drivers on I-95, which they said is already dangerous enough.

“It was a simple safety issue,” said Kohnke about the billboards, which rotate every eight seconds displaying a different advertiser.

Opponents also cited concerns over aesthetics and light pollution, and disputed the county’s designation of the proposal as a “pilot program,” noting that once the signs were erected, they would remain forever.

The group worked to gather research about the electronic signage and disseminate that information throughout the community. Cearley believes the public opposition ultimately led to the demise of the proposal.

The St. Johns County Planning and Zoning Agency (PZA) recommended in February that the BCC remove the provision from the proposed signage changes, citing similar concerns about the billboards. In response, billboard companies have recently asked that the proposal be withdrawn altogether.

In a letter obtained by The Recorder via a public records request, the Jacksonville division president of Clear Channel Outdoor referenced the PZA’s recommendation as well as the public comment during the Feb. 16 meeting as rationale for the company’s request to withdraw the program.

“During public comment, much information was shared both in support and in opposition of the pilot program,” stated Clear Channel’s Brent A. Bolick in the March 22 letter addressed to county commissioners and administrators. “As an industry, I believe it behooves those in support of this legislation to take a step back and reflect on those comments made by the public, whether they were positive, negative or simply inaccurate. By doing so, I believe we can craft a pilot program for the future that is reflective of the wants and needs of St. Johns County.”

While the billboard industry requested the proposal be withdrawn, however, the decision on whether to do so rested with the county.

As for next steps, Cearley said his team will move onto another project, unless they are directed by administrators or the county commissioners to research the digital billboards again and work with the community.

As for the billboard industry, Bolick stated in his letter his desire to revisit the issue in the future and “offer forward a proposal for the Board of County Commissioners to consider.”

Billboard opponents like Lisa Cook are expecting exactly that to happen. Cook, who was responsible for creating the group’s website, is now shifting her attention to a much larger project: banning digital billboards across the entire state. She plans to suggest the ban to the 2017-2018 Florida Constitution Revision Commission, which is a group of 37 people selected every 20 years to review and recommend changes to the Florida constitution. Appointed by the governor, house speaker and senate president, the CRC looks to citizens for direction and suggestions for possible amendments to the constitution.

“We shouldn’t have to battle this on the grassroots level every single time the billboard industry wants to do this to our citizens.” Cook said. “The fact that we have them on busy freeways and roadways is appalling.”

The CRC will start its work following the completion of the 2017 legislative session.