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The debate over digital billboards in Dallas got one step closer to resolution Monday when a City Council committee agreed that major sign companies will have to retire roughly six large traditional billboards to put up one digital sign.

Council member Ann Margolin, who urged the council into tougher negotiations with sign companies, also persuaded the committee to permit construction of no more than 25 digital billboards over the next three years.

The committee’s proposed ordinance still must be approved by the full council but is significantly tougher than the 2-for-1 swap sought by sign companies and the 3-for-1 swap proposed by the City Plan Commission.

The proposal is also more restrictive than similar ordinances recently passed by Irving and Grand Prairie, although it doesn’t go as far as Houston, which prohibits all digital billboards, or Tampa, which required a 10-for-1 swap.

Margolin said she was pleased to get the three-year pilot program passed to give Dallas residents a chance “to see what digital signs would look like and make a determination whether they want to see more of them.”

Margolin also pushed for a sunset provision on digital signs but failed to get it past colleagues who appeared to be more sympathetic to the industry’s wishes.

“For transparency, I favor digital billboards. I would like to see the whole city go digital because it is where the technology is today,” said Mayor Dwaine Caraway, a former billboard owner who nevertheless offered that there is a proliferation of signs in some areas.

Tim Anderson, a vice president for Clear Channel Outdoor — which approached the city about permitting digital signs — told council members the company was “semi-satisfied” with the proposed ordinance.

Clear Channel executives have said that the digital technology is simply a way to switch copy on their signs and that the signs provide police with an important important tool for posting Amber Alerts and other public safety information.

The digital signs give the company the ability to change messages as frequently as they like, but they are limited by law to changing messages no more than every eight seconds. Also, the signs’ brightness must be near the ambient light level.

Under Wednesday’s agreement, digital signs could be erected only on freeways, and their faces would have to be at least 1,000 feet from residential property.

Under the proposal, large sign companies such as Clear Channel and CBS would have to swap 4,032 square feet of traditional sign for one digital face. That amounts to six large freeway signs or as many as 56 smaller signs that have faces of roughly 72 square feet. Such smaller signs line many older Dallas streets.

Since 2000, the city has had a policy calling for the eventual elimination of all billboards in Dallas. But while the policy was largely effective in stopping construction of new signs, it was ineffective at bringing existing signs down.

Several council members said they hoped the agreement would bring down older signs in their districts.

There was strong sentiment in favor of the digital signs.

Council member Delia Jasso said the signs would be important for public safety, a common industry talking point.

Colleague Sheffie Kadane accused Margolin of seeking to delay action.

“You want to put this off and put this off,” he said. “I’m ready to see these signs go up. I’m sick of the old billboards.”

Ann Murphy, co-president of the North Dallas Neighborhood Alliance, said she remained concerned that the signs would distract drivers and affect residential areas.

But the agreement Monday is better than what was originally proposed, she said. “They have finally inserted something besides the industry’s proposal.”

AT A GLANCE: PROPOSED ORDINANCE

Digital billboards could go up only on freeways where existing signs stand.

Large companies would have to trade 4,032 square feet of old billboard space for one digital billboard. The sign being converted to a digital face would not count as part of the swap.

Companies with fewer than 60 signs would be allowed a single 1-for-1 sign swap.

No more than 25 digital signs could be erected over the next three years.

There would be no sunset provision to remove digital signs that are erected.

Faces of digital signs would have to be at least 1,000 feet from residential areas.

 Posted on : January 20, 2013
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