Billboard Battle

Scenic Knoxville seeks to pull the plug on digital billboards

When City Council meets March 11, an ordinance regulating digital billboards is to get a hearing, and a bashing by a newly formed affiliate of Scenic Tennessee called Scenic Knoxville. The group opposes the electronic billboards, already appearing along highways in Knox County with county approval, for safety reasons, its leaders say.

"There are no limitations on the billboards' brightness," says Gene Burr, a former president of Scenic Tennessee and a board member of Scenic Knoxville, "and they are distracting [to motorists] and dangerous."

Highway safety is not Scenic Knoxville's only consideration in attempting to block or slow down the introduction of the computer-controlled billboards to the city. The overall mission of the city, state, and national Scenic America's organizations is to raise awareness of and oppose all types of "visual pollution." But Burr concedes that traditional billboards themselves seem here to stay, though they contribute to urban blight.

Then representing Scenic Tennessee, Burr got to voice the organization's concerns to the Metropolitan Planning Commission late last year, but MPC approved a draft ordinance and sent it along to Council.

Greg Isaacs, the attorney representing Lamar Advertising, says the ordinance is the product of negotiations with the Knoxville mayor's study committee on outdoor advertising.

When state law changed last summer to allow for the digital billboards and Lamar showed interest, the issue was addressed by the study committee. In the meantime, the county's board of zoning appeals authorized such billboards under the new law, without having to resort to County Commission approval, and a few have popped up along I-40 and out in Solway near the Melton Hill bridge, but the city process moved more slowly.

"We got a compromise through negotiation, says Isaacs, with several limitations more stringent than provided by state law. E-billboards in the city would be spaced 2,000 feet apart, rather than the 1,000 feet of separation specified by the state and in the county, and the duration of each digital message would be 10 seconds, rather than the eight seconds allowed under state law. There is a trade-off factor, as well. Two existing billboards are to come down for each digital billboard put into service, but Scenic Knoxville's president, Duane Grieve, says that is a poor trade-off, since the digital billboards allow for six messages a minute.

Those messages, Isaacs argues, would include public-service postings such as Amber Alerts describing missing children, which can be introduced within minutes of law enforcement's issuance of such alerts. Weather warnings and homeland security notices would also be presented to motorists in a timely manner, he says, along with commercial advertising.

About Scenic Knoxville, which was formed last month with an initial mission to oppose the billboards in the city, Isaacs says, "These are the same people who would oppose a sign the size of a postage stamp....It's a vocal minority against any form of commercial speech." And it's a protected free speech form, he says, although subject to "reasonable regulation."

The proposed regulation levels, he says, are reasonable. He cites other Tennessee municipalities, such as Chattanooga and Nashville, that have approved the digital billboards, and suggests that Council keep that in mind.

Although Burr acknowledges that the digital billboard issue is "really what precipitated the Knoxville organization coming together," he says there are many more items on Scenic Knoxville's agenda: advocacy of the state's oft-defeated bottle bill, which would require a deposit on drink containers and help reduce litter; opposition to mountaintop removal by coal mining; preservation of trees and shrubbery along public rights-of-way; and advocacy of plantings of wildflowers along highways and in their median strips by the state Department of Transportation. Scenic Tennessee is also at work in those areas, Burr says.

An arm of Scenic America, Scenic Tennessee's been around since 1987. It was instrumental in getting TDOT to provide for the blue informational signs at Interstate exits in hopes of limiting further growth in traditional billboards, Burr says.

As to the electronic billboards and potential safety concerns, Grieve says the Knoxville organization's suggestion to Council will be: "What's the hurry? The federal government's in the process of doing a study on the safety issues that is due out next year. Can't we wait to see what that says?"