Mayor pulls the plug on digital billboards

By Janet Zink, Times Staff Writer

Published Friday, February 13, 2009

TAMPA — Mayor Pam Iorio wants city attorneys to go back to the drawing board with two billboard giants, and this time, digital signs won't be part of the conversation.

CBS and Clear Channel Outdoor had hoped to win the right to put up electronic billboards, which are like huge TV screens with changing messages, as part of an agreement settling years of litigation.

Neighborhood groups and City Council members objected, saying they worried the signs would shine excessive light into people's homes at night.

"Listening to the council discussion on the settlement agreements, the council's discomfort with digital billboards is apparent. I share this concern. We want to reduce visual blight in our community," Iorio said an a memo sent to council members Thursday.

Lawsuits between the city and CBS and Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. started about 10 years ago, after the city told the companies to take down billboards to improve the look of some roads, but offered no options for relocation.

Since then, digital billboards have become state-of-the-art technology, allowing companies to sell one space to multiple advertisers.

Combined, CBS and Clear Channel have more than 1,300 billboards in Tampa.

They wanted to settle the litigation with an agreement that would allow them to put up one digital sign for every four traditional signs they take down, even though city code forbids electronic billboards.

Twice, the City Council considered the agreement presented by city attorneys, and rejected it, sympathizing with residents.

"We don't want a legacy of digital billboards that make this city look like Las Vegas," said City Council member John Dingfelder.

He wants to determine where digital billboards should be allowed as part of an ordinance.

Wofford Johnson, president of Tampa Homeowners an Association of Neighborhoods, said he is relieved Iorio came down on the side of residents and the council.

"It was very, very obvious from our membership that they were really concerned and I guess you'd say upset by the potential of having digital billboards in their neighborhoods," he said. "We just wanted to make sure that neighborhoods were protected and didn't have to look at glaring lights and flashing signs from their homes."

Wofford said he'd rather see the city code address the issue than a legal agreement with CBS and Clear Channel.

"It should be driven that way rather than by the billboard companies," he said.

The settlement agreement was scheduled to go before the City Council again on March 5.

City attorney Chip Fletcher said he would meet next week with lawyers for CBS and Clear Channel to determine whether they want to continue to negotiate a settlement or go back to court.

"We don't have a clear indication whether they're willing to settle without the electronic billboard component," Fletcher said.

Attorneys for Clear Channel and CBS did not return calls for comment.

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