So why are billboard opponents making a big deal out of the issue now, when sign companies are removing billboards?
In one word: digital.
The new technology came to popular use in off-premise billboards in the past decade, raising concerns around the country about whether the bright signs that changed messages every six to eight seconds were a safety hazard and an even bigger blight on communities.
Five years of gradual local efforts to restrict digital signs are culminating in the June 7 vote.
In 2006, the city of Rapid City formed a task force to examine digital billboards and implemented a six-month moratorium on all off-site sign permits.
A year later, ordinances were passed to ban the most irritating features of digital billboards: flashing or moving images and illumination that reaches distracting or hazardous levels.
Certain animated signs, including the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center marquee and four Epic Outdoor Advertising billboards, were grandfathered in — a move that is still controversial today.
Things heated up again in 2009, when Lamar Advertising attempted to convert a billboard near Wilson Park along Mount Rushmore Road to digital, raising the ire of the Mount Rushmore Road Group, a coalition of business owners working to beautify the commercial strip and tourism corridor.
In March 2010, Mayor Alan Hanks proposed a 90-day moratorium on new electronic signs and billboards after recognizing what he called a loophole in city ordinance: Billboard companies didn’t have to use any sign credits to convert a traditional sign to an electronic sign, even though the electronic signs are more valuable and can show more messages.
The move came as other cities, including Denver, and state highway systems, including Montana’s, banned all electronic billboards.
Denver banned electronic billboards in March 2010 after residents said they didn’t want the bright signs distracting from the city’s scenic beauty, the Denver Post reported. Montana clarified its rules in 2008 to ensure that digital billboards are not allowed on state highways, a move Montana Department of Transportation director Jim Lynch said was necessary because a sign company argued in court that the state’s ban on electronic signs didn’t apply to digital billboards.
“We had to change the words to continue to support the intent when the rules were put into place the first time,” Lynch said.
“The intent was for the state of Montana not to have any electronic or digital or flashing billboards.”
All communities that don’t want digital billboards have to stay vigilant as technology advances, Lynch said
This spring, Salt Lake City is also considering a ban on digital billboards and in April enacted a moratorium.
The mayor initiated the ban to improve the image of the city. Officials there said flashing lights belong in Las Vegas, not a serene mountain city, the Deseret News reported.
St. Louis enacted a year-long moratorium on digital billboards after three were erected in the city, and digital billboards are also being debated this spring in the North Carolina statehouse.
In all the cases, critics cited concerns about blight and roadway safety.