(Page 2 of 2)
Activists aren’t the only parties alarmed by the county proposal. Most of the billboards slated to go digital lie in territory that Renton and Burien are either considering or planning on annexing, in keeping with a county policy of divesting urban areas to the cities. Both ban digital billboards. They urged the county to either reject the ordinance or amend it to exclude potential annexation areas and avoid grandfathering in signs they wouldn’t allow.
“Clear Channel approached us a year or so ago” to propose installing digital boards, says Renton city planner Alex Piesch. As in Kent, the company promised self-regulation, public-service announcements, and emergency bulletins. “We didn’t find the arguments persuasive,” Piesch added, noting that the city is trying to remove, not add billboards.
The City of Tacoma, which also wants to clear out billboard clutter, saw going digital as a way to do that. In 1997 it passed a law drastically reducing the number of boards on its streets. In 2007, as the deadline for removal neared, Clear Channel sued to block it. This year the company struck a settlement with the city: It would remove five conventional boards and relinquish permits to build 10 more in exchange for each digital board it erected. That suggests how valuable the new e-signs are to billboard operators.
This deal is more favorable than the one King County struck, but it’s still met a wall of public opposition. According to Tacoma planner Shirley Schultz, 95 percent of the 254 citizens who weighed in opposed the measure. Last month the Tacoma Planning Commission urged the settlement be scrapped and proposed a counter-ordinance banning digital billboards. Last week, Tacoma’s News Tribune reported that its mayor and city council seemed to be backing off from the settlement.
Schultz says Tacomans’ wariness is piqued by the proximity of the blazing gauntlet through Fife and Milton. Clear Channel wouldn’t install the same sort of flashing billboards, but Pat O’Leary, the state Transportation Department’s chief highway-sign watchdog, says that strip still offers a cautionary example. Many of the electronic signs along it are actually on-premise signs for businesses on private, rather than tribal, lands. As such they’re permitted and regulated by the state.
O’Leary says their owners tend to follow the rules — for a while. But it’s so easy to tweak the digital settings, and the competition for eyeballs is so relentless, that they perennially ratchet up their wattage and add flashing and animation, in a process of mutual escalation. The state sends cease-and-desist orders; the owners comply, then ratchet up again. “It’s kind of like speeding,” sighs O’Leary.
The same sort of escalation is already visible on Seattle’s buildings, where sign companies keep pushing or breaking city rules to hang ever bigger, more legally tenuous supergraphic “wallscapes.” In Los Angeles, a city fighting to roll back an epidemic of electronic billboards, multiple competing e-boards, rolling out of sync, compound the glare and distraction at some intersections. The 21 King County billboards in question hardly threaten such a spectacle. But if Clear Channel proceeds from there to get digital billboards approved in Seattle, the prospect won’t seem so remote.
That’s not the only unforeseen (but entirely foreseeable) consequence of allowing digital streetscapes. Billboards, like everything else electronic, can malfunction, sometimes with head-spinning results. And they’re a hacker’s dream, choice prey for digital pranksters and message jammers. No such hacking has been reported in this country, but last year unidentified hackers ran a two-minute porn video on a downtown Moscow billboard.
Perhaps the County Council will address some of these concerns when it takes up the digital billboards again. For now, says Councilmember Hague, the billboard-shy suburban cities should commit to annexing the areas in question or get out of the way. For now, she says, “we’re the government there, so we should move ahead.”
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!