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City of Lawrence, billboard firms tangle with Marion County planners

December 15, 2008
What started as a dispute over a pair of digital billboards in Lawrence has evolved into a battle with broad implications for Marion County. The outcome will answer two key questions: whether billboard companies can plant their lucrative electronic signs here and who gets to decide.

The fight isn't just between outdoor advertising companies, who see a gold mine in the remote-controlled signs, and detractors who think the billboards are obnoxious and dangerous. It also involves government officials in Indianapolis and Lawrence who can't agree on who has jurisdiction in the case.

"This could set an inappropriate precedent in terms of uniform zoning," said Larry Williams, principal planner in Marion County's Division of Planning. "We feel this is a significant issue that could affect the entire county."

Earlier this year, the Lawrence Board of Zoning Appeals approved two digital billboards, one in the 7300 block of East 46th Street and the other in the 7400 block. Louisiana-based Lamar Outdoor Advertising owns one of the signs. The other is owned by Virginia-based LightPoint Impressions LLC.

Lawrence allowed the signs in spite of the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development's decision to prohibit digital billboards countywide over concerns about visual clutter and roadway safety.

Lawrence officials feel they have jurisdiction over zoning within their city limits.

"Not one member of the Metropolitan Development Commission is from Lawrence," said Lawrence Mayor Paul Ricketts. "At some point in time, people locally should decide what they do and don't want."

City planners called the Lawrence zoning board's decision into question, and appealed the matter to the Metropolitan Development Commission. The full commission was set to vote on the legality of the digital billboards Oct. 15, but the meeting broke down over an argument about jurisdiction. After MDC members finally decided they did have jurisdiction, officials for the billboard companies asked for a continuance to the Jan. 21 MDC meeting.

In the interim, they've taken the dispute to court. On Nov. 12, Lamar filed a lawsuit asking a Marion County judge to uphold Lawrence's sole jurisdiction over the matter. LightPoint did the same Nov. 13.

Mike Quinn, Lamar's local counsel, doesn't think that question will be settled anytime soon and believes the case could be tied up in court for several months. If the MDC votes against the digital billboards Jan. 21, Lamar and LightPoint could appeal that decision in a separate court case.

"Whoever loses this will likely appeal to the state appellate court, then it could potentially go to the Indiana State Supreme Court," Quinn said. "We feel the state statute says Lawrence should have exclusive jurisdiction on all property within its boundaries. I've been practicing zoning law since 1967, and I've never seen anything like this. The [MDC] must feel pretty strongly about it."

Marion County zoning officials think if the judge sides with Lawrence, it will call into question who has the final say on zoning matters not only in Lawrence, but also in Speedway, Southport and Beech Grove. The four towns within the county were allowed to retain a degree of independence when Indianapolis and the county merged their governments in 1970.

Digitally divergent

Outside those four incorporated towns, the odds of winning approval for digital billboards appear slim.

This isn't Lamar's first effort to get a digital billboard approved in Marion County. Last summer, the county's Board of Zoning Appeals approved by a vote of 3-2 a request from Lamar to replace a traditional billboard with a digital one at East 86th Street and River Road. But the MDC overturned the decision.

MDC officials are unabashedly opposed to digital advertising, which is typically stretched across a 14-foot-by-48-foot billboard.

"They have an intent to distract," said Williams, Marion County's principal planner.

He said the traditional billboards Light-Point and Lamar want to change to digital billboards in Lawrence pose a heightened hazard.

"Those billboards are near roadway exits and intersections," Williams said. "We feel they can be a serious traffic hazard."

Digital billboards are not allowed to feature moving pictures or video. Instead, they show a rotation of static pictures, images or messages that change every few seconds. Indiana law says digital billboards can change after a minimum of eight seconds.

Lamar officials cite two 2007 studies — one by Tantala Associates, a Philadelphia-based engineering consulting firm, and the other by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute — that stated digital billboards are no more of a distraction than standard billboards. The Federal Highway Administration, however, is still studying the safety of such signs, and is expected to submit its finding to Congress in early 2009.

"There's never been a reported accident attributed to a billboard, let alone a digital billboard," said Chris Iversen, Lamar's local general manager.

In addition, Lamar and LightPoint have promised to give Lawrence time slots on the new digital billboards to display community information, including traffic updates and Amber alerts.

Norman Pace, the land use chairman for the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations, said you don't need a study to see the negative impact of digital billboards.

"It's easy to see the glare of these digital billboards causes problems on the roadway, especially at night and especially when the roads are wet or icy," Pace said. "If we start allowing these digital billboards now, it's really going to open the floodgates. It will be like the razzle-dazzle of Las Vegas, and we want a better image for our city than that."

Big revenue generators

One thing is certain: The advantages of digital billboards for outdoor advertising firms are immense. The messages on digital billboards can be replaced in minutes from a remote computer. That's in sharp contrast to the seven or so days it takes to change the message on a traditional billboard.

And digital billboards can accommodate five to seven advertisers simultaneously. That means big revenue, especially at high-demand locations like those in Lawrence.

Monthly rent for a billboard ranges from $500 to $4,500, depending on location. Annual revenue from a single sign in a choice location could rise from $54,000 for a traditional billboard to $320,000 for a digital sign, which can deliver up to six messages at a time. Lamar officials told investors last year that digital billboards should generate five to eight times the revenue of a traditional billboard.

The revenue potential is such that even smaller billboard companies, such as Columbus-based JR Promotions, are finding that the approximately $450,000 it costs to set up a digital billboard is worth the investment. That compares to $50,000 for a traditional billboard.

"The digital billboards give us so much more flexibility," said JR Promotions President Richard Sprague. "We can do weekly or even daily specials for advertisers and we can do shorter-run contracts. It sure beats changing vinyl all the time."

Until the advent of digital billboards, there have been few changes in the 80-plus-year history of the industry. Until the 1990s, wooden boards were painted and installed on billboards in a laborious days-long process. Early in that decade, ads were printed on vinyl sheets, which could be taken down and sometimes reused.

In the mid-1990s, "tri-vision," or billboards with rotating slats that could accommodate three messages, hit the market. But the tri-vision boards were clunky and cumbersome to change, industry experts said.

Encroaching on all sides

While jurisdictions within Marion County debate the issue, digital billboards are encroaching on its borders. JR Promotions has two digital billboards about 25 miles south of Indianapolis, in Edinburgh, and two more less than two miles south of the county line near the Greenwood exit on Interstate 65. They can also be found in Merrillville, Terre Haute and Evansville.

But Marion County, with its dense population and heavy commuter traffic, is the big prize, ad industry experts said.

"I think outdoor advertising companies will continue to make a big push here," said Bruce Bryant, president of locally based Promotus Advertising. "It's just too lucrative a proposition for them to give up easily."

Despite the prohibition, some digital billboards have emerged in Marion County. Simon Property Group has one at Castleton Square Mall, and there are two next to Lucas Oil Stadium. City planners said the sign at Castleton is allowed because it is promoting only businesses on the site. The prohibition applies to off-site advertising. City officials said the digital billboards at the stadium are allowed because of state participation in the project. Projects the state is involved in are not subject to city ordinances.

There are about 800 digital billboards nationwide — the vast majority erected since 2005. Lamar is by far the national leader, with about 600 of those. There are 10 in Indiana, up from four just one year ago.

Advertisers want them just as badly as billboard companies.

"This technology has allowed us to get on some billboards in high-traffic areas that otherwise wouldn't have been possible," Bryant said. "There's always been a draw to the sheer volume of people you can reach with a billboard. But now the ability to change the message at literally a moment's notice with little added cost makes this medium even more enticing."

Bryant also sees the downside. Some areas are a good fit, such as Interstate 70 by the airport, he said. Other sites, he added, such as the billboard at 22nd and Delaware streets, where the sign points straight down Delaware and could pose a motorist distraction, is not a good fit.

"As powerful as this new medium is, I realize these signs can be bright and obtrusive," Bryant said. "I would feel uncomfortable with a plan to replace all the static billboards with digital billboards in this county. Times Square is not the appropriate landscape for Indianapolis."
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