The St. Johns County Planning and Zoning Agency (PZA) voted 5 to 1 last week to recommend that the Board of County Commissioners remove a controversial provision allowing digital billboards from proposed changes to signage regulations in the Land Development Code.
At the Feb. 16 PZA meeting, numerous residents voiced their concerns about the provisions, which would create a two-year pilot program allowing digital billboards. Under the proposal, the pilot program would limit the number of digital billboards to four signs along I-95; while the signs would rotate every eight seconds – displaying a different advertiser – animation, flashing and movement would be prohibited from each sign.
County staff recommended the program, saying the digital signs would help reduce the overall number of billboards. In addition, the county’s “swapdown” program requires that for every new billboard erected, several existing ones must be taken down.
The digital billboard program was included in proposed changes to county signage regulations required as a result of Reed v. Town of Gilbert – a Supreme Court ruling that found restricting a church’s signage based on its content was unconstitutional.
“We cannot single out a single subject matter,” explained Assistant County Attorney Paolo Soria. “We cannot make one rule for campaign signs, another for temporary signs, another rule for ‘We Love the Sidewalk’ signs.”
Yet it was the digital billboard proposal that generated the most interest and opposition among meeting attendees.
“We live in paradise,” Ponte Vedra Beach resident Nicole Crosby said. “What in the world are we doing even considering taking a piece of Times Square and putting it in the middle of paradise?”
Ponte Vedra Beach resident and former county commissioner Mary Kohnke concurred.
“I think if you want tacky and flashy, then you should go to Jacksonville or Orlando or Tampa,” she said. “We don’t do that here.”
Several residents also expressed concern about the rotating billboards presenting a safety hazard to motorists. Ponte Vedra Beach resident Lisa Cook noted that several studies and news reports have identified St. Johns County as one of the most hazardous stretches of I-95.
“I think that needs our attention – not digital signs,” Cook told PZA members. “We need to help it, not make it worse.”
Billboard industry reps disputed the belief that digital signs are any more distracting than traditional static billboards. Brent Bolick, division president for Clear Channel, said studies have found digital billboards to be “safety neutral.” Other speakers highlighted the benefits the rotating signs offer to small businesses.
“In today’s very competitive media world…it’s harder today for small business to effectively market and advertise their business,” said Don Kiceina, general manager for Outfront Media. “If they didn’t work, if they were truly dangerous, we wouldn’t be allowed to do them.”
Several meeting attendees questioned the proposal’s designation as a “pilot program,” since at the end of the two-year period the initial four digital billboards would be allowed to stay up even if the county decided against continuing or expanding the signage to other parts of the county.
“Pilot programs are like a gateway drug,” said Giff Crosby of Ponte Vedra. “It’s very hard to come back from approving a new platform that the industry will throw a lot of investment dollars into. Trading the old standard billboards for these digital billboards is a devil’s bargain.”
A number of PZA members also questioned the proposal’s designation as a pilot program.
“Coming from the private sector, I have never heard of a pilot program that if unsuccessful, gets to remain functioning,” Board Chair Jeff Martin observed.
Board Member Dick Williams agreed. “This pilot program isn’t just two years,” he said. “We’re really going to authorize digital billboards forever – at least those four or five on I-95.”
Board Member Mike Koppenhafer challenged the concerns expressed over the negative aesthetic impact of digital billboards.
“I-95 is the least aesthetic part of our county,” said Koppenhafer, noting that the new signs would require the removal of traditional billboards elsewhere. “There is a counter argument: If it’s going anywhere, would you rather have a billboard on I-95 that sucks 10 ugly billboards up from A1A or Bartram Trail? I think there’s some logic to that.”
Board Member Jon Woodard, meanwhile, stressed the economic value the digital signs could provide to local businesses.
“It would be a huge benefit to these businesses to have a digital billboard,” said Woodard, the lone board member to vote against the recommendation to remove the digital signage language. “We want to have the commercial (business)…and we have to give these businesses the tools they need to draw customers.”
Yet in the end, it was the very effectiveness of digital billboards that convinced board member Williams they presented a safety hazard.
“Safety is my number one concern,” Williams said. “The fact is, it does grab your attention and they are much more effective. From an advertising standpoint, that’s a good thing. But it is a problem I have with safety. To me, it’s logical that this is a distraction.”
Board Chair Martin agreed. “We already have a major problem in our county, in our state and in our country with distracted driving,” he said. “The purpose of a billboard, digital or otherwise, is to capture the attention of drivers. We don’t need to add one more distraction to the roads.”
The proposed signage changes are now scheduled to come before the Board of County Commissioners at its April 4 meeting.