Billboard deal has a catch

By Janet Zink, Times Staff Writer

Published Thursday, November 5, 2009

TAMPA — After years of legal wrangling, the City Council on Thursday approved a settlement agreement with two billboard companies.

But there's a catch: The companies can get out of the deal, which requires them to take down some signs, if the city doesn't pass an ordinance allowing digital billboards.

The vote was 5-2, with council members Mary Mulhern and Linda Saul-Sena opposing it.

Mulhern specifically cited the opt-out provision.

"We want to be like cities that don't allow digital billboards. I see this agreement at the top of that slippery slope," Mulhern said.

Saul-Sena mentioned the agreement's lack of fines for not taking down billboards. She said the city needed to hire an outside attorney with experience in sign issues to negotiate the settlement.

"The sign companies, trust me, have people for whom this is their main focus," Saul-Sena said. "Our community has never been beautiful. We're making some strides. This is not as strong a step as we'd like to make."

The agreements settle years of litigation with billboard giants CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor.

Negotiations began after the companies sued the city because new rules forced them to take down billboards to improve the look of some roads but offered no options for relocation.

Since then, the industry has seen technological advances allowing companies to use digital billboards to sell one space multiple times, making the signs more profitable.

Earlier this year, the City Council rejected agreements with CBS and Clear Channel that would have allowed them to replace traditional billboards with digital ones that are like giant TV screens and feature constantly changing messages.

Neighborhood groups worried that light from the signs would intrude into their homes and hurt the character of historic districts. So the council and Mayor Pam Iorio decided to pull the digital billboard provisions from the settlement agreements and address them with the city's sign code.

A proposed digital billboard ordinance prohibits the signs in historic districts, limits their light intensity, caps the number of electronic billboards, and determines roads where they are allowed. A workshop on the ordinance is scheduled for next month.

The city of St. Petersburg also is likely to consider an ordinance in December that would allow digital billboards in the city. There, Clear Channel has agreed to remove 100 of its 144 billboards over two years, and limit its digital billboards to 10. Under Tampa's proposed ordinance, Clear Channel would remove 70 traditional billboards and put up 20 digital signs.

Janet Zink can be reached at or (813) 226-3401.

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