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Beware billboard blight

Does anyone actually want this?

Some 25,000 billboards along certain stretches of Texas highways could soar in size under a regulatory change approved by state transportation officials.

The Texas Transportation Commission voted unanimously Thursday to eliminate the existing 42½-foot height restriction beginning September 2019, allowing the size limit to double. The ruling followed months of deliberation and discussion, including a write-in campaign that generated thousands of letters both against and in favor of taller billboards.

The action allows the 2019 Texas Legislature to revisit the matter and issue clearer rules, commission chairman J. Bruce Bugg said.

“We are trying to bring what I would call a fair balance to the deliberation,” he said.

The commission was immediately criticized for giving lobbyists for outdoor advertising companies a stronger hand in dealing with legislators when they meet next year. Many sign companies are aggressively seeking to roll back limits on height and the brightness of electronic billboards.

“The industry has no incentive to participate in that, help in that, or do anything other than kill it,” said Margaret Lloyd, president of Scenic Texas, which advocates for sign limits.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and chairman of the Texas Senate Transportation Committee, said lawmakers in 2017 made clear they intended to keep the 42½-foot ceiling in place, although the authority rested with the transportation commission.

“Billboards will go to 85 feet,” Nichols said, warning of the consequences if lawmakers do not act.

[…]

The latest revisions to the billboard regulations were prompted by a court challenge to Texas’ sign rules in 2016, and a need to address hundreds of billboards that do not satisfy state rules because they pre-date laws, road conditions changed or were simply installed out of compliance.

“Some of them were over 100 feet,” Scenic Texas’ Lloyd told transportation officials. “(Outdoor advertising companies) basically turned their backs to the agency that was regulating them.”

Vela, the industry representative, said Texas has sufficient oversight of the outdoor advertising industry.

“We support robust enforcement of all regulations and believe that the department does a very good job of enforcement,” he said.

Comments pro and con poured in when TxDOT first proposed some of the rule changes in October, with more than 4,700 comments on the height restriction dominating the mix.

Of the 2,010 in favor of increasing the limit to 85 feet or eliminating height rules altogether, many came from outdoor advertising companies, property owners with billboards on their land and companies that use the signs to advertise.

Another 2,694 commenters opposed raising the height limits. Most of those were from Scenic Texas and its supporters and concerned residents.

Emphasis mine. This is not the first time that a proposal to raise the maximum height of highway billboards has come up – in that case, the new max height would have been a relatively petite 65 feet – and not surprisingly, the general public was against it. You know what to do in 2019, Sen. Nichols.

You are now free to visually blight Texas highways

WTF?

Opponents of billboards and other signs along Texas roadways reacted on Monday with dismay to an appeals court decision striking down significant portions of the Texas Highway Beautification Act, saying the ruling could lead to a litany of signs along federally funded highways.

The Third District Court of Appeals in Austin issued the decision on the state law – cheered as the linchpin of Texas’ scenic roadway efforts – because the 42-year-old act restricts free speech.

Scenic Texas, a statewide group that has fought watering down Texas billboard laws, is urging the Texas Department of Transportation – the defendant in the current case – and state officials to appeal.

“What it appears to do is strip away TxDOT’s authority to regulate outdoor advertising as they have been doing it for the last 40 years,” said Margaret Lloyd, a Galveston resident and vice president of Scenic Texas. “We are concerned that authority has been removed completely.”

The ruling came late last week in a case regarding a 2011 sign erected to support Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. Auspro Enterprises placed the sign on its property along Texas 71.

[…]

TxDOT spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said the agency is reviewing the ruling and consulting with the Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Highway Administration.

“TxDOT does not regulate or restrict content, as TxDOT has regulations that provide protection for freedom of speech,” Beyer said in a statement. “Texas has the most beautiful roadways in the nation, and as such TxDOT only wishes to further maintain the safety to the traveling public without restricting peoples’ constitutional rights.”

Citing other restrictions on signs and previous court rulings, the appeals court struck down subchapters B and C of the beautification act, which are the centerpiece of the law. Essentially, the court ruled Texas’ law relies on exemptions that differ based on the content of the sign, which is unconstitutional.

“The Texas Act, as both (TxDOT) and the Texas Supreme Court have acknowledged, on its face draws distinctions based on the message a speaker conveys,” appeals court Chief Justice Jeff Rose wrote.

Rather than void parts related to political speech, as TxDOT sought during the case, the appeals court said it cannot sever one type of sign from another and deemed TxDOT’s total authority of signs unconstitutional.

“We strongly disagree with the interpretation the court has come up with,” said Anne Culver, president of Scenic Houston, a local version of the statewide group.

A copy of the ruling is here. It cites a recent SCOTUS case ( Reed v. Town of Gilbert), which the judges say “has arguably transformed First Amendment free-speech jurisprudence”. If that’s so, I don’t care for it, because I think this ruling, which struck down a law that had been in place with no objections for over 40 years, is too broad. Beyond the effect at the state level, this could affect local billboard ordinance as well. Surely we don’t want to go back to the ugly old days in Houston, right? Scenic Texas said in a post on Facebook that they will encourage the AG to appeal this ruling. This is one time where I agree with that advice. Swamplot and the Chron editorial board have more.

No taller billboards

Fine by me.

Texas highway officials are shelving a proposal to increase the permissible height for roadside billboards in suburban and rural areas, citing conflicting facts and a deluge of public criticism.

[…]

“It was obvious that Texans care greatly about our visual environment and take pride in the ongoing efforts to improve the traveling public’s experience on our highways,” said Ed Wulfe, a Houston-based commercial property developer and member of the Greater Houston Partnership’s executive committee.

The partnership joined 14 other local or statewide groups in opposing the height increase, which would have applied only in places where local laws don’t set height limits. Houston has one of the state’s strictest billboard codes.

Of 941 comments TxDOT received on the sign rule changes, 919 were related to the billboard height increase, according to a report. More than 900 were from the general public, officials said, asking TxDOT not to increase the maximum sign height.

“We had confidence Texans would speak up for the beauty of their state,” said Margaret Lloyd, a Galveston resident and vice-chairwoman of Scenic Texas, which leads many anti-billboard efforts.

See here for the background. The billboard industry proposed raising the maximum height of billboards from 42.5 feet to 65 feet – for purposes of comparison, the giant statue of Sam Houston outside Huntsville is 67 feet tall, plus a ten-foot base – on the laughable idea that greater visibility for billboards would equate to greater safety. Scenic Texas pushed back, arguing for a reduction to 30 feet instead. The Texas Transportation Commission, sensing a fight it didn’t want to engage in, made the wise choice to retreat. One hopes this will be the end of it, but I wouldn’t count on that. For now at least, the only thing you’ll see above the trees on Texas’ highways will be the sky, and of course the stars at night. Which is how it should be.

Billboards above the trees

Is this really necessary?

In the latest conflict, billboard opponents are objecting to a proposed policy change that would allow billboards as high as 65 feet – taller than a typical six-story building – in spots along Texas highways.

The provision would increase the maximum allowable height of billboards along interstates and primary roads – such as U.S. 290 and Texas 71 – from 42.5 feet to 65 feet. The change would apply only to places where local law allows increasing the height of signs. Houston forbids signs higher than 42.5 feet.

Billboard critics say the height increase would have dire consequences for unincorporated and rural areas.

“When you are out in rural Texas, we already get a lot of complaints about lighting,” said Margaret Lloyd, vice president of Scenic Texas, which monitors state sign rules. The group is a frequent opponent of sign proliferation in Texas.

[…]

In a report on the proposed changes, state transportation officials said the height increase would improve visibility and allow billboards in places where they might be blocked by trees. The Texas Transportation Commission will consider the proposed height increase, along with two other regulation changes, later this year; a public hearing is scheduled next week in Austin.

“It comports with scientific studies indicating that to have a functional viewing distance at 60-70 mph a sign should have approximately 65 feet of vertical offset,” officials said in the report.

The analysis came from two studies, Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Veronica Beyer said. The studies were based on best practices for making signs legible to drivers, taking into account motorists’ ability to read a sign as they drove toward it at various speeds.

The reports were written by researchers at the International Sign Association and United States Sign Council – both industry-sponsored groups. The reports also found readability is reliant on the amount and size of text.

According to the story, there’s going to be a public hearing about this at TxDOT’s headquarters in Austin today, but I’ll be damned if I can find anything about it on TxDOT’s webpage. I can accept the existence of billboards on the highways – honestly, they can be useful if you’re trying to find the kind of attraction that advertises on billboards that you’ve not been to before – but I’m hard-pressed to see the value in top-of-the-treetops advertising. Unless we’re talking billboards with Gertrude Stein quotes, in which case I’m willing to be flexible. But beyond that, let’s leave at least one public space intentionally blank, shall we? Thanks.

Metro moving forward with advertising

This has been in the works for a long time.

Depending on what Metropolitan Transit Authority officials decide regarding a new revenue plan, your light rail trip could end at the Taco Bell Station, or some similarly named stop.

Officials in early 2013 are expected to receive more information on a revenue plan exploring potential corporate partnerships and advertising. Board members, at a meeting in November, stressed they are considering options carefully, knowing any talk of adding ads to the sides of buses will raise concerns.

“The only reason why we are considering this is because there are potential benefits to our riders and the public,” board member Christof Spieler said during a recent committee meeting.

Allowing advertising could generate up to about $10 million a year for the agency, which has a roughly $300 million operating budget.

Limiting ads to corporate sponsorships, such as renaming routes or lines, and minimal branding might bring in about half that sum, according to analysts with the consulting firm IMG Worldwide.

Critics of advertising proliferation in Houston worry that if Metro opens the door to some advertising, it will set back anti-billboard efforts.

“This is a city where you form your impressions through a windshield,” said Anne Culver, executive director of Scenic Houston, a group focused on eliminating what it considers visual blight in the city.

“Houston has a great tradition of keeping the city free of billboards and of visual clutter,” said Ray Hankamer, a Scenic Houston board member. “This is the camel getting its nose under the tent.”

Like I said, this has been in the pipe for a long time. Last discussion of it that I’m aware of was in October of 2010, with a story from earlier that year referring to 2005. It came up before then in November of 2008. I have been a proponent of this all along, first suggesting that Metro put ads in its light rail cars in 2007. I respect Scenic Houston and I support their work, but I disagree with them on this. I don’t see it as being anything like billboards, which had been permanent fixtures in many neighborhoods. Putting signs on the sides of buses, or on bus shelters, isn’t going to change your view. The “naming rights” concept is new and I’ll admit to having a bit of unease about it, but in a world where every stadium, arena, and concert venue is named for this corporation or that utility, it’s hard to get too worked up about in. As I’ve browsed my archives on this, it seems like the reluctance to go forward has been one part resistance from City Council, and one part disinterest from outgoing CEO George Greanias. Neither Council members nor the interim Metro CEO were quoted in this story, so we’ll have to see what those potential obstacles look like this time around. For the record, I hope Metro goes forward with it. It makes good sense, and if they’re serious about building the University Line, then every extra dollar matters.

Your digital ad here

Lisa Gray alerts us to the latest bright idea from Austin.

Like all of Texas’ big cities, we have regulations that ban digital billboards – both because they’re painfully ugly and because they’re designed to take drivers’ eyes off the road.

But now our freedom from those distracting eyesores is in danger. A pair of bills in the Texas Legislature would allow digital billboards to weasel their way into those cities.

And the sneak attack is disguised, of all things, as a safety measure.

The bills look harmless at first: Both House Bill 1765 and Senate Bill 971 describe an “emergency public safety messaging network” that would notify drivers of evacuation plans, Amber alerts and such – never mind that the Texas Department of Transportation already has a network of less-distracting emergency signs to do just that. Or that notice-worthy emergencies exist only about 1 percent of the time.

What would those digital billboards display during the other 99 percent?

“Commercial digital messages,” the legislation explains, deep on page 4. And the private contractor would pocket 95 percent of the resulting ad revenue, leaving the state and city to split the crumbs.

Under the bill, the approval of just one executive – an area’s “emergency management director,” usually either a city mayor or county judge – would be all that’s needed to make an end run around local sign codes and building ordinances, state billboard law and even the Lady Bird Johnson Highway Beautification Act.

Here’s HB1765 and SB971. The good news is that so far neither of these bills has come up for a vote in committee. The bad news is that the Senate has already shown that it’s happy to meddle in the affairs of cities, so there’s no reason why they couldn’t pass. These bills seem like silly little attempts to generate a few pennies for the state rather than perform a necessary or useful function. Like Lisa, I hope they go nowhere, but as always it’s never a bad idea to let your elected officials know how you feel about these things.

Mobile billboards

As we know, City Council passed a more restrictive billboard ordinance in 2008, and just recently got a favorable resolution in a lawsuit about billboards in the extra-territorial jurisdiction. But that doesn’t mean the billboard battle is over. Nonsequiteuse wants to know, what about mobile billboards? She says she’s seeing more of them around town these days. I can’t say that I have, but then I don’t get out much. Anyone else seeing these things?

Billboard battle finally resolved

Nice.

A protracted wrangle over 59 billboards illegally erected in Houston’s 5-mile-wide extraterritorial jurisdiction ringing the city ended Thursday when U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt ordered bankrupt RTM Media to dismantle the outdoor advertising within 12 months.

The judge’s order came after receivers of the company, which went bankrupt in April 2009, petitioned the court for permission to cancel its advertising contracts and remove the signs.

[…]

Craig Smyser, an outside attorney representing the city in the case, called the judge’s order “a complete victory for the city.”

Smyser said he is unaware of any other legal challenges to the city’s billboard ordinance.

RTM Media, which had been slapped with hundreds of citations by city inspectors, challenged the 1980 ordinance’s constitutionality in 2007. The U.S. Supreme Court resolved the case in favor of the city.

See here and here for some background. The key to this is that the city will not have to pay anything to remove the signs; RTM is on the hook for that, and it owes the city a $50,000 payment on top of that. A statement from the Mayor’s office about the resolution of this case is beneath the fold, and a map of the billboards’ locations is here.

(more…)

Don’t we have some kind of ordinance for this?

This is what it looks like when a billboard is born

This is what it looks like when a billboard is born

This is I-10 at Studemont on Wednesday morning. They started building this thing on Monday, and by Wednesday evening there were billboards on display. Once I realized what it was, I said to myself “Don’t we have some kind of billboard-restricting ordinance? How is it that a new billboard is being put up?” As it happens, an earlier version of that ordinance would have allowed some existing billboards to be relocated, but that wasn’t in the final deal. So I’m curious. Did that new ordinance restrict the construction of new billboards? If so, how is it this one got built?

UPDATE: Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who wondered about this.

School bus billboards

A cash-strapped school district’s gotta do what a cash-strapped school district’s gotta do.

Faced with a projected $9 million to $12 million budget deficit this year, Superintendent Greg Smith told the Board of Trustees last night that it’s time to get creative.

“We are not turning any opportunities down,” he said.

Board members attending this month’s workshop meeting learned Humble ISD is taking in $250,000 this year by turning its buses into billboards, and with 255 buses running 173 routes each day, Clear Creek stands to pocket something close to that. Other school districts already trying it are Pearland, Pasadena, Cy-Fair, Spring and Anahuac.

The idea is still in a “just thinking about it” phase and no date has even been set yet for a vote, but staff researching the possibility found that the district could probably charge about $350 a month for splashing an ad as big as 2.5 feet by 7.5 feet across the driver’s side of the bus where the kids won’t see it while boarding. A 1.5-foot-by-9 foot-ad stripped above the bus windows on either side of the bus could fetch about $175 a month. Plus installation fees of $250.

[…]

“Reputable” advertisers such as insurers, car dealers, restaurants, hospitals, home builders and dentists could run 9-month ads on the routes of its choice, perhaps near their businesses or maybe on the freeway where commuters could see them. The ads would have to be age-appropriate, of course, with no promotion of alcohol, drugs or gambling and with no offensive ethnic, racial or religious references.

In the sense that this is vastly preferable to things like laying off employees, dropping programs, or cutting bus service, I have no objection to this idea. In the sense that any school district should have to face these kinds of choices as a result of the continued penury of our state leadership and the bizarre anti-tax mania of too many of our citizens, I find it distasteful in the extreme. On balance, I say go for it. Thanks to Marc Campos for the tip.

Interview with Council Member Sue Lovell

Sue LovellCouncil Member Sue Lovell is running for re-election to her third term in At Large #2. She chairs the Quality of Life committee, from which the recent ordinances about billboards, signage, and attention-getting devices originated, as well as the Transportation, Infrastructure, and Aviation committees, and she also serves as Mayor Pro Tem. Oh, and she’s Houston’s representative on the Houston-Galveston Area Council, and serves on H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council. She’s had a full plate, to say the least. Lovell has four opponents in November, including perennial candidate Griff Griffin, who collected 47% of the vote against her in 2007 when she didn’t run an active campaign but put a lot of effort into helping several other Council members get elected. She’s running a vigorous campaign this year, and that was one of many things we discussed in this interview.

PREVIOUSLY:

Download the MP3 file

Karen Derr, At Large #1
Brad Bradford, At Large #4
Stephen Costello, At Large #1
Lane Lewis, District A
Lonnie Allsbrooks, At Large #1
Noel Freeman, At Large #4
Brenda Stardig, District A
Oliver Pennington, District G
Amy Peck, District A
Herman Litt, At Large #1
Natasha Kamrani, HISD Trustee in District I, not running for re-election
Alex Wathen, District A
Robert Kane, District F
Council Member Melissa Noriega, At Large #3
Jeff Downing, District A
Mike Laster, District F
Council Member Jolanda Jones, At Large #5
Mills Worsham, District G
Rick Rodriguez, At Large #1

More signage regulation coming

First, they came for the billboards. Then they came for the attention-getting devices. Now in the crosshairs: Roof signs and other potential menaces to Houston’s natural beauty.

The city of Houston is poised to pass a major revision to its decades-old ordinance governing more than 60,000 signs on display at area businesses, proposing numerous changes that supporters hope will improve the city’s appearance.

Critics agree that the changes will be vast — eliminating roof signs, regulating electronic displays and diminishing the maximum allowable height and square footage of on-premises signs by nearly half in certain cases — but strongly oppose the changes because they could hurt small businesses and initiate a citywide makeover they say Houston does not need.

The debate has sparked age-old tensions about the character of Houston, and whether the laissez-faire approach that has governed its appearance, leading to a little-controlled bonanza of signs and development — is ideal for the city’s future.

“People come here and they are consistently shocked by the city’s appearance and they often ask us how we let this happen to our city,” said Anne Culver, executive director of Scenic Houston, an organization that advocates for more regulation of signs and billboards. “Site consultants say all the time that they’re told not to put Houston on their lists because of pollution, the heat and how it looks. This is a step in the right direction.”

Michael Berry, a former city council member who has spoken against the measure on his radio show, said the timing of the changes — coming in one of the worst economic downturns in a generation — could not be worse.

“Houston didn’t grow so big so fast because of an activist City Hall,” he said. “Less government, no zoning, low taxes and a strong business climate may be ‘ugly’ to some, but that’s why we’ve prospered. This will hurt small business at a time when they are struggling.”

I cheered the billboard ordinance. I’m more ambivalent about the AGD ordinance, but am okay with it. This one, I’m not so sure about. I guess I just don’t perceive the problem. Maybe I just don’t notice the types of signs and displays in question, or maybe I do notice them and am just not all that bothered by them, I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a case to be made that Houston would be more aesthetically pleasing with a stronger ordinance in place, and I’m sure the existing one needs some kind of updating, but the case for this particular revision is not self-evident to me. Given the recent loss in court over enforcement of the to-be-updated AGD ordinance, I’m leery of something as broad as this. I’m not saying I can’t be convinced that this is a worthwhile pursuit, but someone is going to have to make an effort to do so.

Having said that, Berry’s lame, archaic, knee-jerk sloganeering is about the least credible argument you could use to dissuade me. Let’s put aside the fact that this is about the worst time in my memory to make the “regulation is bad” claim as an axiom. Even if it is the case that in whatever history of Houston Berry has in mind a “non-activist” City Hall contributed to the city’s growth in the past, why is that necessarily the case now? We all know how much, and how rapidly, Houston has changed in recent years. Who’s to say the way we’ve always done things is the way we should always keep doing? That’s granting Berry’s premise about Houston’s governance, which may or may not be on point anyway.

The proposed changes were produced over the course of a year by a 14-member task force that included city officials, commercial real estate agents and representatives from the sign-making, restaurant and apartment industries. Task force members said the proposals represented a compromise between business interests and consumers, and many stressed that the new requirements will not be imposed on businesses with existing signs. Only new developments and businesses greatly remaking their signs will have to comply with the new regulations, which would go into effect Sept. 1, if passed.

The measure appears to have the support of council members, who last week noted the array of stakeholders who participated on the task force. The proposed rules sailed through council’s Quality of Life Committee in May.

[…]

Despite efforts by city officials, some industry officials have spoken out against the changes, in some cases even though it was not immediately clear how their companies would be affected. Several officials representing national pharmacy chains such as Walgreen’s asked City Council not to pass the ordinance last week, citing concerns over the new electronic sign rules.

Some commercial real estate agents have speculated that Houston will lose a perceived advantage from developers eager to do business in a place with few regulations.

Mike Harp, development director for Cedarwood Development, a commercial real estate company, said businesses with existing signs would have an advantage over competitors that come into the market after September. In particular, he said, there are not adequate provisions for exceptions to the rules.

“I can agree that we need our rules to be stiffer, but when you turn it over to a bureaucracy and administrative people, you very much lose your edge, in my mind,” he said. “It’s a problem if you set down a black and white ordinance that may not apply common sense to a specific site.”

I can accept the argument that Houston’s current regulations may be attractive to some developers. It does not necessarily follow that this is a net positive for Houston. Maybe a more stringent set of rules would have a greater benefit, in terms of people and businesses wanting to relocate here. That’s Anne Culver’s argument, and it’s one I’m receptive to, but I’m also receptive to Mike Harp’s point about the new ordinance possibly favoring existing businesses over new ones. I can see the pros and cons, I’m just not sure which set is bigger. I’d like to hear more about this. What do you think?