As the saying goes, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. For those following the billboard industry’s request to allow ultra-bright digital signs that change message every eight seconds, it may be over Monday. That’s when the Board of County Commissioners will resume a public hearing on the matter that was delayed on August 9, just one week after City Council voted unanimously to uphold the city’s current ban on digital billboards.
One factor acknowledged in City Council's decision was the outpouring of opposition to Fairway Outdoor Advertising’s proposal. Many council members noted that night that they received over 1,000 messages in opposition to Fairway’s proposal, while they received less than 10 messages in favor. We’ve covered the many reasons behind this deluge of emails, letters, and phone calls previously, and a quick read can bring you up to speed on the proposal.
What’s new, however, are the implications of City Council’s decision. If the BoCC votes yes on Fairway’s proposal, it will only apply outside of city limits. Additionally, the county is expected to be the sole source of funding for the proposal's implementation and enforcement costs. These costs are estimated by the Planning Department to be up to $120,000 the first year, and $100,000 each subsequent year.
Many billboard opponents point to this sum as a good reason to vote no. It is estimated that the new digital billboards will only bring in $28,800 a year in tax revenue, causing a revenue shortfall of up to $71,200 a year. This is equivalent to the total cost of at least one full-time teacher position, a teacher that opponents argue will need to be fired in order to allow digital billboards. Opponents further argue that this strain on the budget will all be an attempt to appease an industry that doesn’t follow regulations in the first place.
After City Council voted to oppose Fairway's billboard proposal, council members asked the planning department to inspect all current billboards in Durham. It was previously estimated that at least 34 of the 94 billboards in the city and county were non-compliant. If the cost to bring each sign into compliance is greater than 25% of the sign’s replacement value, then the billboard must be removed. This, after all, is the original aim of Durham’s current billboard ordinances.
The billboard inspection process, currently still in its organizational steps, will be an important test of how well Fairway and its competitors play by the rules. At the City Council hearing last month, Fairway’s representatives claimed numerous times that they wished to take better care of their billboards, but were barred from doing so by the current ordinance. Councilwoman Catotti, and others, noted that this was absolutely incorrect. Billboard owners can maintain their billboards, as long as they adhere to the 25% limit. This 25% limit applies to any single project, so additional maintenance can be performed each year, for example.
Instead of doing this work, however, some billboards have been left to rot by their owners. It remains likely that these signs may end up being removed as a result of the inspection process.
The failure of billboard owners to maintain their structures makes it easy to question the likelihood that Fairway will abide by its non-binding agreement to donate message space to non-profits, the only carrot dangled thus far by the billboard industry to entice votes for digital billboards.
Monday's BoCC meeting starts at 7:00 at 200 E Main St, downtown.