Monday, December 28, 2009

LA homeowners fight the glare of digital billboards

(photo: Jay L. Clendenin/ Los Angeles Times/ December 17, 2009)

The Los Angeles Times covers the unfortunate consequences of digital billboards in Los Angeles. As one member of a neighborhood group fighting three digital billboards laments about lowered property values, "would you buy a home with one of these things in your backyard?"

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Venezuela Sets Billboard Curfew to Save Energy

Amidst an energy crisis due to low water levels at one of the world's largest hyrdoelectric dams, Venezuela is instituting a range of energy-saving measures. Included in the far-reaching effort to reduce energy demand is a midnight curfew on billboards. It's not a new idea; President Carter proposed such a curfew during the 1970's energy crisis. It's time to turn off the lights on billboards.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bye Bye Billboards!

(photo: Bates Area Civic Association)

Recently we brought you a story from the District of Columbia about determined residents of the Shaw neighborhood targetting illegal billboards that were a nuisance to the community. We're now pleased to pass along news that all of the offending signs have been removed! Congratulations to the dedicated citizens who successfully brought the issue to the attention of city hall and to city leaders for finally enforcing the sign ordinance!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Billboards and the Night Sky

Standard billboard with wasted light (photo: IDA, via National Geographic Kids)

To follow up on yesterday's post from earlier this week on the energy use of billboards, it also is important to note the negative impact billboards have upon the Night Sky. Billboards generally are lit in an upwards, wasteful manner that unnecessarily spill light into the night sky and neighboring properties. To find out more about outdoor lighting and the importance of preserving the wonders of the Night Sky, visit our friends at the International Dark-Sky Association.

U.S. Supreme Court Turns Down Billboard Appeal; Big Victory for Cities

Illegal Metro Lights/ FUEL street-level ads (photo: Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight)

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday provided good news to scenic advocates across the country as it refused to hear an appeal by a billboard company challenging Los Angeles' prohibition of billboards in 2002. The closely watched case addressed important free speech issues and the billboard company was assisted by noted consitutional scholar Laurance Tribe.

The federal district court judge agreed with Metro Lights claim that LA violated its free speech rights because the city itself generating revenue from a sanctioned "street furniture" billboard program on public property. However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and yesterday's decision by the Supreme Court is another important victory for the right of communities to control outdoor advertising. While scenic advocates generally disagree with street furniture ads on public property, the decision of a city to engage in the practice should not prohibit it from being able to control visual clutter by banning billboards elsewhere.

Scenic America notes that Metro Lights (now called FUEL) has been a litigious thorn in the side of large cities across the nation. It has placed thousands of illegal signs in Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, and its threat of legal action against any removal of its illegal signs has had the intended effect of delaying municipal action.

Yesterday's Supreme Court decision should now encourage these cities to restore the visual character of their communities by reigning in rouge advertising companies like Metro Lights. And as the LA-based Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight notes, a court ordered disgorgement of the huge profits Metro Lights/ FUEL made in LA with these illegal signs would send a strong message.

Monday, December 14, 2009


" B MOR EFCNT" (photo: John Regenbogen)

"SAV NRGY" (photo: John Regenbogen)

Saint Louis electric utility giant AmerenUE is running a multiple billboard campaign supposedly encouraging energy efficiency. Here's a suggestion: turn off the lights!

The lighting for standard billboards, including the ones depicted above, typically use four lamps that generate about 1,600 watts of energy use per sign on average. With an estimated 500,000 billboard structures nationwide, the cumulative energy consumption of the outdoor advertising sector is certainly an eye-popping figure and worthy of analysis.

AmerenUE's environmentally-unfriendly 24/7 billboard campaign (ironically being run during the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference) not only is polluting the atmosphere unnecessarily, it is also disturbing the night sky and, if industry practice holds true, will result in thousands of square feet of vinyl wrap eventually tossed into local landfills.
UPDATE: At least AmerenUE apparantly is not using even more energy-intensive digital billboards for its campaign. According to the Central Texas -Balcones Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, the carbon output of a single digital billboard is roughly the same as 49 traditional billboards or 13 homes!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Texas DOT Advances Good Street Design, CSS

Kaid Benfield at the NRDC's Switchboard blog has a great post succinctly informing readers of the benefits of Context Sensitive Solutions in designing walkable and attractive communities and how TXDOT, of all places, is leading the way for state agencies.

TXDOT is the first to officially adopt guidelines set forth in a new manual written by the Congress for New Urbanism and the Institute for Transportation Engineers. The manual, CSS in designing Major Urban Thoroughfares for Walkable Communities, is a great tool for helping both transportation designers and community advocates implement effective projects that make communities more livable and beautiful.

With its central role in the seminal release of Flexibility in Highway Design FHWA manual in 1997, Scenic America played a critical role in helping the transportation design profession first move away from a rigid, "design/defend" process to a more progressive orientation that involves the public and better meets community needs. What was once seen as somehow heretical within the profession is quickly becoming main stream common sense.

Friday, December 11, 2009

St. Petersburg City Council Delays Digital Billboard Proposal

The Saint Petersburg City Council ended hopes of Clear Channel to secure an agreement by the end of the year to allow it to erect 10 digital billboards in exchange for the removal of traditional billboards elsewhere in the city.

Clear Channel worked in secret with the outgoing mayor on the proposal for several years, and neighborhood groups and council members were naturally concerned about the proposal unveiled to the public at the end of the mayor's term. The city's Development Review Commission and Planning and Visioning Commission both had previously recommended that the council delay action on the proposal so that a more thorough review could be conducted. The Saint Petersburg Council of Neighborhood Associations had expressed the common sense argument that a rush to approve digital billboards ahead of the upcoming release of the FHWA safety study on digitals was premature.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Wind Turbines and Neighborliness

(Ridgeline Wind Turbines: Pennsylvania Resources Council, Inc.)

The Green Inc. blog at The New York Times carries an interesting post about how a federal judge has halted a large-scale wind energy project on the basis that it fails to protect an endangered species. The judge found that the endangered Indiana Bat would be harmed by the project, which is located on top of a mountain ridgeline, and that the company failed to take the proper steps to preserve the species required under the Endangered Species Act.

As the judge wisely commented, "The development of wind energy can and should be encouraged, but wind turbines must be good neighbors."

For more information on scenic issues involving wind energy projects, visit Scenic America's Wind Energy Resource Page.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

FCC Enacts "Shot Clock" Rule on Cell Tower Permits

(Illegal cell tower overlooking Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility)

Local zoning officals and scenic advocates need to be aware of an important rule change by the FCC requiring municipalities to act on cell tower permit applications within 90 or 150 days.

The new "shot clock" rule is a reminder to local authorities to have good rules regarding cell tower placement on hand to help guide good decision-making in a timely fashion. Poorly placed cell towers are often met with community opposition and can diminish property values and degrade the enjoyment of parks and scenic or historic areas.

For more information on the regulation of cell towers, visit Scenic America's resource page on telecommunications towers.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Toronto Passes Strict Billboard By-law and Tax

After several years of study and considerable debate, Toronto finally passed a billboard tax and strict new sign code to regulate billboards.

Illegal Signs.CA has a good synopsis of what the sweeping victory means for Toronto's landscape. The new by-law limits digital technology and will make it very difficult for new billboards to be erected. The inclusion of heavy fines should also force the removal of hundreds of illegal signs in the city-- previously, operators of these signs would simply ignore the law because of weak penalties and lack of enforcement. The tax is expected to raise $10.4 million annually, and the revenue will help the city enforce the new by-law. The expectation is that the number of billboards in Toronto will be halved over the next twenty years.

Big Billboard will seek to overturn the Council's action, of course, but the supporters of a beautiful Toronto are ready for the challenge.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pinellas County Citizens Fight Digital Billboards

On Friday, we posted on how Tampa Bay neighborhood groups are strongly opposed to a plan to allow digital billboards. But the good folks at Scenic Pinellas informed us that the fight against digital billboards is ripe throughout the Tampa-St. Pete metro area.

FOX 13 provides an excellent news piece on the situation in Saint Petersburg, where the out-going mayor supports a proposal by Big Billboard to erect 10 digital billboards in exchange for the removal of static billboards elsewhere in the city. But City Council and neighborhood groups are wary of the proposed deal, noting that the results of the long-awaited FHWA safety study on digitals are just months away.

(FOX 13:

And that's not all. Last month, Pinellas County enacted a moratorium on new digital billboards after learning that the industry seeks a larger digital roll out in the county. County engineers also have found evidence of an increase in distraction-related accidents near the location of an existing digital billboard. Undeterred, billboard companies propose that the county lower the 60 second duration between ad copy changes to every six to eight seconds.

For more, visit Scenic Florida affiliates Scenic Pinellas and Scenic St. Petersburg.

Friday, December 4, 2009

FHWA Unveils CSS Primer

(Photo: Center for Transportation and the Environment, NCSU)
Confused about what Context Sensitive Solutions is and what it can mean for your community? Well then check out FHWA's new, user-friendly CSS Primer.

The collaborative CSS process results in better transportation projects than the "our way or the highway" decision-making method of the past. CSS promotes liviable communities and sustainable transportation and allows for increased preservation of scenic, aesthetic, historic and environmental resources.

For more on CSS, visit Scenic America's CSS resource page and

Toronto Council to Continue Debate on Monday

Although debate began this week on the future of billboards in Toronto (see prior post), City Council adjourned for the weekend and will bring up the issue on Monday.

But this excellent update from spacing toronto soundly counters an argument that one councilor made that digital signs are simply "modernization." As the blog post makes clear, light trespass for affected homeowners is more nightmarish than anything else. The post also points us to this disturbing open letter from an unfortunate soul subjected to "modernization" and a must-read 2008 LA Weekly article about how LA council members regret approving digital billboards after having had no idea what they were unleashing upon the landscape.

Tampa Bay Citizens Oppose Digital Billboards

Tampa Bay citizens and neighborhood groups are actively opposing a proposal to allow digital billboards in the city for the first time. The bill stems from a proposed legal settlement between the city and Big Billboard that hinges on the legalization of digital billboards in exchange for the removal of static billboards elsewhere. Residents voiced their opposition in a public hearing and raised concerns about the distracting nature of digital billboards, which rotate ad copy as frequently as every eight seconds and have been found to be a distraction to motorists.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Tribune passes along unusual testimony from the industry on whether digital billboards are like the moon: "If you never had any complaints about moonlight then you shouldn't have a problem with digital billboards." A more reasonable assessment of the brightness of these signs -- which an industry funded study found are ten times brighter than the surrounding area and three times brighter than traditional billboards -- comes from promotional material of a manufacturer:

"Nothing's as eye-catching as an electronic LED display. The brightly-lit text and graphics can be seen from hundreds of feet away, drawing the attention of everyone within view."

Indeed, as these unfortunate folks who happen to live in the vicinity of a digital sign in Saint Louis know, Tampa Bay residents have reason to be concerned about light trespass and distraction. Visit Scenic America's resource page on digital billboards for more on the serious safety and visual implications of these new signs.

Update: Here is another disturbing news video about how brightly-lit digital billboards are negatively affecting residents, this time in Detroit.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Historic Pittsburgh Church To Make Way for Billboards?

Preservationists in Pittsburgh are concerned about the future of the historic landmark St. Nicholas Church in Pittsburgh after Lamar Outdoor bought the property.

Lamar is seeking to erect billboards on the property as PennDOT is seeking to condemn a significant amount of billboards within the public right-of-way elsewhere in the area. But it is unclear whether it plans to raze the church building itself; preservationists are hoping to convince Lamar to allow them to covert the church into a museum on American immigration -- the parish served a Croatian population.

It is a large loss for established communities when churches close, and previous efforts by preservationists to buy the property themselves have failed. To think that a historic church could be razed for the purposes of commercial advertising is almost unimaginable.

UPDATE: Preservationists unveiled plans for the museum on Friday and will be meeting with Lamar next week. Lamar, which has not yet closed the purchase with the Diocese of Pittsburgh, hopes to erect 5 billboards on the property. It's unclear if the former church property needs to be re-zoned to accomodate the billboards.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Digital Billboards + Twitter = Epic Fail

Local tv station GM and news director suspended after embarrasing digital billboard advertisement goes awry.

Toronto Council to Finally Vote on Billboard Tax & By-law

Illegal billboard opposing billboard tax (

After much delay, Toronto City Council is finally set to take up final debate on the signs by-law and billboard tax that community groups have been working on for several years. Check out Beautiful City Toronto and Illegal Signs.CA for more on the creativity that Toronto citizens are bringing to the effort to reclaim the city's visual character from Big Billboard.

UPDATE: Yesterday's debate was ended to take up an issue concerning youth hockey; this is Canada after all. Follow the billboard debate on twitter at

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sao Paulo Thrives Without Billboards

Who could ever have thought that Big Billboard's hysterical claims that Sao Paulo's decision to remove thousands of billboards in 2007 would bring massive unemployment and economic devastation to South America's largest city were laughable?

In fact, using the billboard industry's argument that the ban would result in measurable economic impacts, the move reduced the unemployment rate almost two full percentage points. Perhaps the industry wants to now argue that the way to avoid a global recession is to ban billboards?

Of course, it would be wrong to place Sao Paulo's good economic health on the billboard ban, but placing strict limits on visual pollution does improve quality of life. It is no wonder then that the ban is extremely popular with its citizens and that Buenos Aires and other cities across the globe are seeking to follow Sao Paulo's lead.

D.C. Seeks Removal of Illegal Billboards

As this case from the District of Columbia shows, strong billboard laws often are not enough to keep illegal billboards out of our neighborhoods. Without strong enforcement, well intentioned laws can fall short of cleaning up billboard blight. The illegal D.C. billboards in question are over four decades old, and only recently has the city begun efforts to remove them. In addition to inviting graffiti, neighborhood residents complain they provide "cover for public urination, drug use and dumping."