Marion Hilliard fears a time when Blanding Boulevard may look like The Strip in Las Vegas, with electronic billboards resembling huge flatscreen TVs competing for the attention of Clay County motorists.
“I don’t know of anyone in Clay County that wants anything that garish,” said Hilliard, who appeared at a recent Clay County Board of Commissioners meeting to again fight the dragon she thought she had slayed several years ago — the growth of billboards in Clay County.
Hilliard of Orange Park serves on the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs and is chairwoman of the state Department of Transportation Highway Beautification Council. She has been active in the growth of wildflowers along Florida highways and has been fighting billboards since 2004.
At a meeting of the County Commissioners on Oct. 23, Hilliard said, “Citizens worked extremely hard in order to keep this county free of additional billboards. If you do accept digital billboards, you are opening the door for all billboards to come into the county.”
Another Clay resident who has fought the existing billboards is Candace Bridgewater, who considers them visual pollution.
But the commission is going full speed ahead with the proposal, with a hearing before the Planning Commission on Dec. 4 and the County Commissioners on Dec. 11.
“The community wanted a ban on billboards and worked very hard to achieve it,” Bridgewater said. “It is the law and a strong law, and I don’t want it breached.”
“I want to see the trees and sky, and I don’t want to see digital billboards,” Bridgewater said.
Susan C. Sharpe, former managing editor at Rutgers Law Review, in an article published in August wrote, “If left effectively unregulated, digital billboards will not only permanently destroy what few scenic vistas remain but also put drivers at risk because sign operators push the limits of technology to vie for more viewers.”
In Jacksonville, attorney Bill Brinton currently represents Scenic Jacksonville in two lawsuits involving digital billboards.
While there is a prohibition on all new billboards in Jacksonville, certain settlement agreements allow new non-digital billboards under very limited circumstances. Scenic Jacksonville, a party to those agreements, has sued Clear Channel Outdoor Inc., CBS Outdoor Inc. and the city of Jacksonville, Brinton said.
“It asserts that the erection and placement of digital billboards under those agreements were illegal,” Brinton said.
While previous city attorneys had taken the position that the digital billboards were not allowed, the current General Counsel has taken the opposite position, resulting in the lawsuit over their legality, Brinton said.
In addition, Scenic Jacksonville has recently filed a public records lawsuit against the city of Jacksonville. Scenic Jacksonville alleges the city did not produce records that revealed communications between a billboard company and a building inspection division supervisor. A court hearing of the case is scheduled for Nov. 19.
It’s a battle that’s going on across the country, as billboard companies fight to increase their digital footprint. According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, there are an estimated 400,000 billboard faces in the United States and about 3,600 of them are digital.
According to the Florida Department of Transportation, there are 836 billboard structures in Northeast Florida. Each structure can hold one or two billboards. Duval County has the most, at 373 structures, followed by 307 in St. Johns County, 108 in Nassau County and 48 in Clay County. Duval is currently the only Northeast Florida county with digital billboards, at a count of 24 total faces.
The St. Petersburg City Council has approved an ordinance that will put an end to 83 static billboards and allow the construction of six digital billboards near I-275.
Peter King, of Nassau County’s Growth Management Department, said though there are billboards on I-95 and along S.R. 200, there are no electronic billboards. While St. Johns County also has billboards, its county ordinance prohibits electronic billboards, said County Communications Director Michael Ryan.
In 2004, Clay County Commissioners imposed a ban on all types of billboards. Under the ban, no new billboards could be erected, and existing ones could not be replaced or repaired.
In the 2004 ordinance, commissioners determined “that billboards detract from the natural and manmade beauty of the county.”
In addition, it found “that billboards attract attention of drivers passing by the billboards, thereby adversely affecting traffic safety and constituting a public nuisance and a noxious use of the land on which billboards are erected.”
Now Clay County seems to be changing its tune as the commissioners who approved the 2004 ordinance have left office.
The commissioners are working on two billboard laws. One is a six-page ordinance written by the county, and the other is an 18-page proposal written by Clear Channel.
The proposed county ordinance says, “The County Commission finds that its signage regulations unduly restrict the ability of outdoor advertising companies to operate their businesses in the County.”
The ordinance also states “the Board finds and determines that this amendment is not in conflict with the public interest.”
Lisa Hall, a spokesperson for the Florida Outdoor Advertising Association, said that the current attrition rate for billboards is less than 3 percent a year.
“It doesn’t result in an appreciable reduction in the number of billboards in the foreseeable future,” she said of Clay’s current law.
The proposal before the commissioners is for a swap-down plan, where two to three static billboards are swapped for one digital billboard. That would allow the county to reduce the number of billboards in a shorter timeframe, she said.
About 50 billboards dot the landscape along Blanding Boulevard near Orange Park Mall, a few more are along the road toward Kingsley Avenue and some pop up in other areas of the county. Some of the billboards are static, while others change their messages by using flipping triple panels — but they are not digital. They advertise Planet Fitness, Orange Park Medical Center, Hooters, Infiniti cars, and doctors and lawyers.
If the change is approved, billboard companies will be able to place shiny new digital signs with thousands and thousands of brightly colored light-emitting diodes (LEDs). The signs can be changed every few seconds, increasing the opportunity for sign companies to sell more advertising.
Under the county proposal, each billboard face must be no greater than 675 square feet, and for each digital billboard installed, the billboard company must remove two to three times in standard billboard signage, depending on the number of billboards it owns in the county.
The proposal calls for no billboards to be more than 50 feet in height and requires them to use dimming technology that adjusts the brightness of the sign based on ambient conditions.
The signs are designed to make people read them.
“Taking one’s eyes off the road for more than two seconds is considered to be dangerous, and billboards need five seconds of viewing to be effective,” Brinton said.
Jerry Wachtel, a nationally known traffic safety expert who has consulted with both industry and government, said there is “growing evidence that billboards can attract and hold a driver’s attention for the extended periods of time that we now know to be unsafe.”
“The bottom line, in my opinion: These digital billboards can be operated in a way not to be a threat to safety, but the outdoor industry is not willing to operate them that way,” said Wachtel, president of The Veridian Group Inc. in Berkeley, Calif.
Longtime Clay County resident Bill Garrison of Clay Hill believes the county will approve the electronic billboards, which will result in the reduction in the total number of billboards in the county.
“If we can make Clay look better, I’m all for it,” he said.
“Too many billboards can be a distraction. They don’t help the appearance of a community.”