New ordinance will allow digital billboards

The flashing signs are a visual blight to neighborhoods and distraction to motorists

By John Sharp

KCMO’s ordinances that for years have effectively curtailed the proliferation of electronic billboards with changeable messages along interstate highways were severely weakened on December 19 by passage of a new ordinance supported by the billboard industry.

The new ordinance allows static billboards located within 660 feet of an interstate to be converted to visually distracting but very lucrative electronic billboards with messages that can be changed as frequently as every 8 seconds as long as a much higher amount of static billboard space in the city is removed.

 If small billboards (6’ X 12’ or 10.6’ X 22.9’ billboards) are to be removed at least 7 times the square footage of the electronic billboard will have to be removed.  If large billboards (14’ X 48’ billboards) are to be removed the ratio is only 3 to 1. Before the ordinance was amended during a brief Council debate on the ordinance a 7 to 1 removal ratio was required for the removal of all sizes of static billboards.

The amendment, which was approved with almost no debate, further weakened existing ordinances by allowing any static billboard on an interstate to be converted to an electronic billboard if the electronic display is removed from an existing billboard.  

That overrides the provisions that have been in force prohibiting a billboard along an interstate from being converted to an electronic format (which only has been allowed in exchange for the removal of a billboard being condemned) when it is:

–Within a residential zone or within 250 feet of any building wholly occupied as residential;

–Directed toward and within 500 feet of a residential unit located in a residential zoning classification; or

–Within 1,400 feet of an existing electronic billboard on the same side of the interstate highway.

The amendment also allowed the conversion of static billboards to an electronic format along I-49 south of Red Bridge Rd. as long as the ratio for the removal of separate static billboards was met.  Before the amendment was approved no electronic conversions were permitted by the new ordinance anywhere along U.S. 71 Highway and I-49 south of I-70.

(City ordinances for years have not permitted construction of any new billboards except within 660 feet of interstate highways.  Even along interstates, new billboards only have been allowed in areas zoned for manufacturing and they have faced several other restrictions including having to be at least 4,200 feet apart no matter what side of the highway they are on.) 

Besides the billboard industry, much of the support for the new ordinance came from people and groups who have been rightly concerned about the deteriorated condition of many billboards in the city that appear abandoned.  They saw the ordinance as a way to tear down those billboards that have long blighted many parts of our city.

However, there was a way to do that without increasing the visual blight and the threat to motorist safety caused by the spread of electronic billboards with rapidly changing messages that distract drivers’ vision from the highway ahead whenever the messages change.

That way was to enforce existing ordinances prohibiting billboards from being “blank” for a continuous 90 days.  “Blank” is defined as:

–Advertising a business or service no longer operating or being offered;

–The advertising message becoming illegible in whole or substantial part;

–No advertising copy visible; or 

–The advertising copy only promoting rental of the billboard.  

Although most KCMO residents who drive around the city a lot frequently see billboards meeting this definition of “blank”, most of us don’t remember any of them being torn down.  During a Council committee hearing on the new ordinance, city staff admitted that no staff is assigned to enforce this requirement. 

One good part of the new ordinance is that it shortens the time for a billboard to be considered “blank” to a continuous 45 days and then specifically giving the owner 30 days to remove it.  

But the shortened time period will have no teeth unless the city assigns staff to monitor the condition of billboards so it can be enforced.

UPDATE

The recently passed ordinance reconsidered and amended by the Council January 9.

The amendment modifies another provision in the new ordinance that would have allowed any static billboard on an interstate to be converted to an electronic billboard if the electronic display is removed from an existing billboard.

With passage of the amendment, the relocation of an electronic display would not be allowed on interstate billboards that are:

–Along I-49 or U.S. 71 south from I-70 to Red Bridge Rd;

–Within a residential zoning classification or within 250 feet of a building wholly occupied as residential; 

–Directed toward and within 500 feet of any residential unit located in a residential zoning classification; or

–Within 1,400 feet of an existing electronic billboard on the same side of an interstate highway.

Those are the same restrictions that were already in force whenever a static highway billboard was allowed to be converted to an electronic format in exchange for removal of a billboard being condemned.   

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