Residents band together against digital billboards


A group of concerned residents is objecting to a proposed two-year pilot program that would allow digital billboards in St. Johns County.

The proposed program is the result of a newly revised county ordinance that would allow the electronic signage on Interstate 95. Joe Cearley, a special projects manager within the county’s growth management division, is working on the program and said the number of proposed billboards is unknown. He also said the specific locations of the signs would depend on where the zoning designation would allow for industrial or commercial use. The signs would be 672 square feet, he said, which is about 100 square feet more than those currently on I-95.

The St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) recommended Nov. 1 that the proposal move to the Planning and Zoning Agency (PZA) board, and the PZA is scheduled to meet Feb. 16 to decide whether to send it back to the BCC for a final vote.

Residents who oppose the proposal have gathered research about the adverse effects of the electronic signage and disseminated that information throughout the community. Their goal is to mobilize the public and persuade the BCC to cast down the proposal before it’s presented to the PZA.

The county was forced to revise its 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. When rewriting the ordinance, Cearley said the billboard industry approached the county about digital billboards, and it made sense, he said, to work the provision into the ordinance. Cearley said digital signage benefits the billboard industry because companies can include up to eight advertisements on one sign.

Speaking on behalf of the residents at the Ponte Vedra Community Association meeting Jan. 17, Mary Kohnke said the digital billboards, which display a different advertisement every eight seconds, would be distracting to drivers. She cited a report conducted by News4Jax in which the TV station obtained records from the National Highway Safety Administration and Florida Highway Patrol that concluded in 2015 that Florida’s section of I-95 has the highest fatality rate of any road in the United States. Kohnke doesn’t understand why the county would want to make the road even more dangerous.

“Any sane minded person would realize this is dicey,” she said.

Cearley, however, referenced a Federal Highway Administration study from 2009 that demonstrates the difference in eye movement when looking at digital billboards compared to traditional billboards, and he said that difference in movement is miniscule.

“There’s nothing new that I’m aware of that’s come out that says these are really bad, that they’re a distraction to drivers,” said Cearley.

Kohnke also said the sign’s LED lights emit more light pollution than standard bulbs, referencing photos taken by the International Space Station of Milan, Italy before and after LED lights were installed to illustrate the difference. In addition, she said there is “no such thing” as a two-year trial. Once a billboard goes up, she said, it cannot come down because it costs too much money to take down.

Cearley confirmed the validity of both arguments, saying the county is calling it a trial because it wants to experiment with solely I-95 and not inundate every major road.

If the proposal is passed, Cearley said the new regulations would be effective in late March. He also said the county would abide by the “swap down program,” which requires the county to take down multiple billboards for every new billboard that is installed. The digital billboards, said Cearley, would be used for public service announcements like hurricane evacuations and AMBER alerts.

At the Ponte Vedra Beaches Coalition meeting Jan. 23, resident Lisa Cook questioned the necessity of the billboards for announcements when she said the Florida Department of Transportation has already installed 11 digital messaging signs for that very reason on the same stretch of I-95.

At the same meeting, PZA member Dick Williams said he’d be concerned about the public safety of St. Johns County residents and visitors if the billboards were installed.

“I don’t know how the billboard companies can overcome that,” said Williams, who will be one of the seven PZA members to vote on the proposal Feb. 16. “They’re very effective advertising. So, you have to be looking at them, and then you’re not watching the road.”

Cook reiterated Williams’ concerns about public safety, noting that multiple places around the world have outlawed digital billboards.

“Everybody seems to know about this,” she said. “Why is St. Johns County wanting to go back in the dark ages and be ok with this?”