Council on the cusp of overhauling billboard regulations

Councilman Bobby Henon resurrected a years-old bill that would overhaul the zoning regulations for billboards on Thursday.

The bill was amended substantially on Thursday, but because it already went through a committee hearing last year, it could be approved as soon as next week.

Among the most significant new regulations are:

  • A 2-to-1 digital conversion ratio. This means that any time a sign company wants to convert a static billboard into a digital billboard, it must take down two traditional signs.

  • A licensing fee of $1 per square foot of sign face, paid every five years. The current licensing fee is $650 per sign. The licensing fee, like other municipal fees, cannot exceed the cost of enforcing the regulations.

  • A limit on the luminescence of digital billboards, which varies depending on their size and placement.

The bill also requires the creation of a billboard inventory, including the address and account number, the number of sign faces and columns, the street that the sign is intended to be viewed from, the height of the sign and the last inspection date. This is a bigger deal than it might seem. Many, including PlanPhilly, have been frustrated in their attempts to get a full account of the billboards in the city.

Henon also introduced a separate on Thursday that would raise the excise tax on outdoor advertising from 7 percent to 8 percent, in keeping with the local sales tax. The excise tax is paid not by the billboard owners but by the companies that advertise on their signs.

Outdoor advertising has been in regulatory limbo for many years. In 2006, the last time City Council tried to overhaul the billboard regulations, the sign companies sued the city over a number of issues. Rather than seeing the litigation through, the sign companies and the city signed a settlement agreement wherein all billboards that didn’t conform to zoning regulations were treated as though they were conforming. In exchange, the sign companies agreed to remove hundreds of bandit billboards placed across the city.

That settlement agreement expired over the summer. If City Council can manage to pass the new billboard regulations without getting itself sued, it will be no small feat. According to witnesses at Thursday’s Council meeting, there are apparently still some amendments to be worked out. But judging from the testimony of the major players, there seems to be significant accord.

“I think I can say on behalf of the entire billboard industry, thank you to the Council, particularly Councilman Henon and his staff, for continuing to work so hard as we try to understand the issues that the billboard industry faces,” said George Kroculick, a Duane Morris attorney who represents Clear Channel. “The billboard industry is well aware of the perception of others in the community. We are very grateful, however, to have rules that we can understand. It puts everyone on an even playing field.”

Mary Tracy, a longtime advocate for tighter billboard regulations who now runs the group Scenic Philadelphia, also struck a (relatively) positive tone.

“Frankly, billboards are a burden and a blight to neighborhoods, and I think that the Councilman [Henon] is trying to do the best that he can to make this more palatable,” Tracy said. “And I think he’s almost there. And I think that you’re never going to please both sides. Certainly we’re really concerned about the brightness of the signs—they’re already three times brighter than a traditional sign—but [the brightness] has come down, and hopefully it will come down some more, but if not, I think we can live with it.”

For more on the history of billboard regulation—we’re offering you a guaranteed thrill ride here, free of charge!—read this story.   

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