Digital billboards would bloom in Indy under council proposal

Major players in the billboard industry have struck a deal among themselves over the Indianapolis market, and now their plan is working its way through the City-County Council as a resolution to lift the ban on digital billboards.

The end result could be as many as 75 digital billboards lining Indianapolis thoroughfares in three years.

The council is scheduled to vote Dec. 1 on Proposal No. 250, which urges the Metropolitan Development Commission to draft a change to zoning ordinances addressing digital billboards. The proposal also suggests specific language, which was drafted by lobbyists for the billboard industry.

“I am appalled—appalled at this proposal being submitted by a lobbying group for the billboard industry and this city council even considering this proposal,” Norman Pace of the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations told the council's Metropolitan and Economic Development Committee during a lengthy Nov. 17 hearing.

The committee voted 5-2 in favor of advancing the proposal to the full council. If approved by the council, the Metropolitan Development Commission, an appointed board, could adopt the language suggested by the proposal or make further changes before sending it back to the City-County Council for approval.

The process is unusual, and Republican council member Jeff Miller asked whether the city's professional planners would weigh in at some point on whether the changes are appropriate for the city's landscape. Jeff Roeder, deputy director of the Department of Metropolitan Development, said the department lacks the staff to devote time to evaluating the proposal.

Miller said that's why it's important for the council members to review the technical details, which include 500-foot setbacks from dwelling districts and 500 feet between each digital billboard.

“We're it,” Miller said. “Staff hasn't looked at it and doesn't plan to.”

Marion County effectively shuts out digital billboards through zoning ordinances that ban “flashing, intermittent or moving light” and “animation” on advertising signs. There are exceptions, including a digital billboard at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on Fall Creek Parkway, which was allowed because it’s on state property.

Miller and Democrat Vop Osili voted against advancing the new proposal, although Miller said he thinks the industry, which has been lobbying council members and Mayor Greg Ballard's administration for three years, had come up with a plan that addressed many of his constituents' concerns.

The proposal suggests that the city allow digital billboards only in place of traditional billboards. And if allowed to convert an existing billboard to digital format, the owner would also have to take down an equivalent amount of billboard space elsewhere in the city.

Clear Channel Indianapolis branch President Brett Beshore said his company, which owns most of the billboards in Marion County, would look to remove many of the so-called poster-size billboards, which tend to be in inner-city neighborhoods.

The proposal also suggests annual caps on the number of conversions to digital. The details of the industry cap and limits per billboard owner have been a point of dispute among the major players—Clear Channel, Lamar Advertising and CBS Outdoor—but the companies reached an agreement within the last month.

The proposal would cap the number of conversions at 25 in the first 12 months after the ban is lifted, 20 in the second year and 20 in the third year. Annual limitations would be placed on each company.

After the first 36 months, the industry could collectively convert four billboards a year.

The proposal also provides an incentive for the industry to take down billboards in designated urban redevelopment areas. The cap on conversions in the first three years could be raised by 10—for a maximum of 75—if companies agree to take down billboards in redevelopment-plan zones.

The proposal suggests language that would keep digital billboards out of historic neighborhoods designated by the city. Marjorie Kienle of Historic Urban Neighborhoods of Indianapolis said many of the group's members haven't yet gotten that recognition, and digital billboards would ruin their redevelopment potential.

I have been driving so much and looking at billboards,” Kienle said. “You get used to seeing those static billboards that are up for a long time. When they start changing every eight to 12 seconds, and they are very, very bright, you will start noticing them.”

Democrat Zach Adamson pressed the billboard industry representatives on whether the industry would be willing to cap the number of billboards – both digital and printed.

Beshore, who was joined by Chris Iversen of Lamar Advertising in testifying to the council committee, said his company hasn't erected a new billboard in more than three years because there are so few remaining sites that could conform to the existing zoning code.

Iversen said that in theory, the proposed language does not stop a company from continuing to put up new printed billboards, even while taking down others in order to meet the requirements for converting one billboard to digital.

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