City, billboard company reach court agreement over digital signs

Billboard company GEFT Outdoor LLC and the city of Indianapolis have agreed to a court settlement that will allow the company to operate two local digital billboards while sparing the city any financial liability for a former sign ordinance that was found to be unconstitutional.

Judge Sarah Evans Barker issued an order stipulating terms of the agreement Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis.

Under the settlement, Indianapolis-based GEFT will be able to convert two traditional billboards near Interstate 70 on the city’s east and west sides into digital signs, as long as it abides by certain conditions.

The city had previously denied GEFT's requests to convert the billboards, which are at 4305 W. Morris St. and 5780 E. 25th St.

GEFT agreed to abandon its claim for damages and attorneys’ fees against the city. The company said in June that it expected those damages would amount to millions of dollars.

The agreement effectively ends a legal fight that began in October 2015 when GEFT sued the city over its sign ordinance. The company claimed that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision made the city’s sign ordinance unconstitutional.

In its suit, GEFT asked that a judge bar the city from enforcing its ban on digital billboards, which it enacted in 2003. The suit also challenged other aspects of the sign ordinance, including its differing standards for “on premises” signs and “off premises signs” and "commercial" and "noncommercial" messages.

In the suit, GEFT also sought monetary damages based on the revenue it said it was losing because of the restrictions.

The city amended its sign ordinance in November 2015 to bring it into compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. GEFT filed amended complaints after that.

GEFT's lawsuit alleged Indianapolis violated the First Amendment with the original ordinance by having different standards for "on premises" and "off premises" signs. The on-premises signs, which advertise solely for the business in the same location as the sign, are allowed to have digital content. Off-premises signs, which advertise for a business or product located or made available elsewhere, are not allowed to have digital content.

On the same grounds, the suit objected to special regulations on signs that express noncommercial opinions or points of view, such as political, religious or ideological sentiment related to a public election.

In May, Barker ruled that GEFT was entitled to pursue monetary damages against the city over the original ordinance even though the sign laws had been amended. She said the original ordinance violated the First Amendment, primarily because it imposed different restrictions on commercial and noncommercial speech.

Barker, however, said the city’s revised ordinance, which still prevented GEFT from converting its signs to digital, was constitutional. The company appealed that part of the decision, but will drop that appeal as part of the new agreement.

Under the agreement, GEFT will pay any permit fees and any expenses to convert the two billboards. It also agreed to a number of conditions for operations.

Among them:

— The company must include welcome language such as “Welcome to Indianapolis” on the non-digital part of the billboards and is allowed to add seven feet in height to the signs in order to do so.

— The digital billboard faces are allowed to display only static advertisements without any copy or messages that move or flash.

— If multiple advertisements are featured on the billboards, each ad must be displayed for periods of at least eight seconds at a time. The transition time between ads can’t be more than two seconds.

— The brightness levels are stipulated for both nighttime and daytime use and are to be independently monitored to make sure they don’t exceed limits.

— Goodwill advertising provided by city organizations shall be displayed on any unused digital display slot.

— Advertisements that promote tobacco, are lewd or lascivious in nature, or that contain profanity won’t be allowed.

— The signs also shall provide feeds for emergency notifications, such as Amber Alerts, FBI Alerts or weather warnings.

The agreement also covers a third billboard owned by GEFT, at 700 W. Morris St.

The sign was categorized as an on-premises sign. GEFT received a variance before erecting the sign in 1997, which was required because the sign was too large for its type and zoning district, according to city ordinance.

GEFT sought to use the sign as an off-premises billboard and display noncommercial messages. It filed for a zoning variance with the city in 2015, but that request was denied.

Under the new agreement, GEFT will be able to use the sign for both off-premises and on-premises uses, with certain limitations.

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