EDITOR'S NOTE

The Worst Driving Distraction

Just 10 votes could gut Jacksonville’s voter-approved billboard ban

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When you're driving down Butler Boulevard, do you ever find yourself thinking, "This road sure could use some billboards"?

Probably not. The truth is, when billboards aren't around, most people don't miss them. They enjoy the lack of visual clutter and uninterrupted tree line.

But roads don't get that way by accident.

A lot of people fought hard against companies with a lot of money to cut the number of billboards in Jacksonville.

Citizens gathered thousands of petitions to put the issue on the ballot when the City Council wouldn't pass meaningful regulations. Billboard proponents raised more than $180,000, while those fighting billboards raised $8,000.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment in 1987 that stopped the construction of new billboards and caused the removal of hundreds more from Jacksonville's roadways. Court battles followed, and the city negotiated several settlement agreements with billboard companies.

Now, City Councilman Richard Clark has introduced ordinance 2013-493, which would regulate billboards but effectively gut the ban that voters fought for and won. Turn on your suspicious government detector: The bill was written by a lobbyist and attorney for Clear Channel Outdoor, a billboard company.

It would take only 10 votes out of the 19 members of the City Council to dismantle the work of so many citizens. What other voter-approved amendments could they toss out next? City Council term limits?

According to an email from former Jacksonville deputy general counsel Tracey Arpen, who helped negotiate the agreements for the city 25 years ago, the bill would allow new billboards to be erected on highways that have always been billboard-free and bring back outdoor advertising on roads where it had been or will be eliminated, including neighborhoods with single-family homes. It would allow all new billboards to be digital and be larger, and companies to cut public trees for new billboard view zones. It would eliminate $500 per day fines for illegal billboards, annual permit fees and the right of citizens to bring lawsuits to enforce the billboard charter amendment.

Proponents of this legislation argue that these signs are needed to help businesses advertise their messages. We need them in order to be a big-league city, they say. They've also enlisted the help of people like Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford and Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler to testify that digital billboards help public safety by posting messages like Amber and Silver alerts. But this is just a way to confuse the issue. Besides, the Florida Department of Transportation has installed Dynamic Message Signs that can help fulfill that purpose.

Clear Channel has worked with Florida Mining Gallery on the Highway Project, which rotates local artwork in among the paid messages. It's a great use of the existing signs and gives local artists some deserved recognition. No doubt, it gives Clear Channel a nice example of how they give back to the community. But that's no reason to expand existing signs.

Clay County recently fought a similar fight. In 2004, Clay County Commissioners imposed a ban on all new billboards and said no existing ones could be replaced or repaired. Last year, they gutted that ordinance under similar pressure from billboard companies.

Billboard proponents argue that the 1987 charter amendment didn't take into consideration the advances in technology that would create digital billboards. It's the kind of argument gun rights activists use when they say the writers of the Second Amendment couldn't conceive of the kinds of guns we have available today.

But those who have been fighting these signs for more than 25 years know that a billboard is a billboard, whether it's plugged in or not.

And these digital versions are designed to attract eyeballs even more effectively, as Ron Word wrote in his November 2012 Folio Weekly story about Clay County's billboard fight.

"Taking one's eyes off the road for more than two seconds is considered to be dangerous, and billboards need five seconds of viewing to be effective," said Bill Brinton, a Jacksonville attorney who's fought against billboards for more than two decades.

Jerry Wachtel, a nationally known traffic safety expert who has consulted with both industry and government, told Word there is "growing evidence that billboards can attract and hold a driver's attention for the extended periods of time that we now know to be unsafe."

"The bottom line, in my opinion: These digital billboards can be operated in a way not to be a threat to safety, but the outdoor industry is not willing to operate them that way," Wachtel said.

Whether they're digital or not, billboards are a driving distraction we just don't need. And it's a fight that voters already fought — and won. Don't let City Council and Mayor Alvin Brown nullify that victory.

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