Digital signs in spotlight

By Janet Zink, Times Staff Writer

Published Friday, October 9, 2009

TAMPA — On county roads, electronic billboards shine brightly against the night sky, sending multiple messages to drivers.

Next week, the debate about allowing electronic billboards in Tampa will be in the spotlight.

The City Council on Thursday will consider an ordinance that lists specific roads where the digital signs could go up and specifies their maximum brightness.

"As a draft, I think it has some potential, but I think it needs some work," said City Council member John Dingfelder.

The ordinance is the result of an agreement settling 10 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, digital billboards have seen technological advances, allowing companies to sell one space multiple times.

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 in 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.

The proposed rules forbid electronic signs in historic districts. They also limit the signs' light intensity to no more than 0.3 foot candles, or about 15 times brighter than the light of a full moon, at a distance of 200 feet. The previous rules would have allowed a light intensity 10 times that amount.

The ordinance also caps the number of electronic billboards at 35 to 40 throughout the city. Combined, CBS and Clear Channel have more than 1,300 billboards in Tampa.

Dingfelder said he'd like to limit the signs largely to the interstates.

But the proposed ordinance allows them all along Dale Mabry Highway, as well as Henderson Boulevard from Dale Mabry to Swann Avenue, and Gandy Boulevard from West Shore Boulevard to Dale Mabry.

"Dale Mabry from the stadium to the north might be appropriate. But from there to the south is not appropriate," Dingfelder said, noting that homes are located close to the busy roadway in that area.

Dingfelder doesn't want the billboards anywhere on Henderson Boulevard, and the Gandy locations might be objectionable to neighborhood groups there, he said.

The council on Thursday will also consider settlement agreements with the two billboard companies to resolve the litigation over sign removal. The agreements include a provision that would allow the companies to opt out of them if the city doesn't come up with an ordinance to allow electronic signs in four to six months.

Marilyn Healy, an attorney who represents CBS Outdoor, declined to comment on whether the digital billboard ordinance was critical to acceptance of the settlement.

But Todd Pressman, a lobbyist representing Clear Channel, said without the ordinance, the company will take the city back to court.

"Clear Channel has given up a tremendous amount," Pressman said, noting that the agreement requires the company to take down 70 billboards.

The ordinance, he said, represents a compromise.

"Clear Channel is happy to move forward with this. Is it everything they wanted? No it's not," he said. "But they wanted to work with the city, and they wanted to work with the residents. It's an ordinance that Clear Channel likes."

Neighborhood leaders are scheduled to meet next week with city attorneys to review the ordinance and agreement.

"We will be opposed to any agreement where digital signs directly impact a residential neighborhood," said Wofford Johnson, president of Tampa Homeowners An Association of Neighborhoods.

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

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