Thursday, February 23, 2012

Planning Commission defers Karen Johnson's bill to allow public process on billboard conversion

Antioch CM Karen Johnson
Earlier this evening Metro Planning staff recommended approving CM Johnson's bill (BL2012-109) that would allow property owners abutting billboards a public process with the Board of Zoning Appeals when a billboard owner wants to convert a conventional billboard to a tri-face billboard. The only person to speak against it in public hearing represented a corporation with a chunk of wealth and heft of influence in Tennessee: Lamar Advertising. He is also the Executive Director of the special interest lobby, Tennessee Association of Outdoor Advertising. Commissioners responded by deferring a decision on the bill until the next commission meeting, saying they want to know more about the legal implications elsewhere of regulation of billboards.

For their part, the staff advised commissioners that state law did not specifically address tri-face billboards, which gives Metro some leeway to require corporations to demonstrate that the conversion to more advertising would not have negative impact on property values.

The billboard merchant opposing Johnson's bill told Commissioners that it violated state law and that a similar measure had been overturned in Johnson City. He also maintained that determining whether billboards have a negative impact on adjacent property values is "subjective at best". This may be true, but not in the sense he meant. It is not subjective because being objective about billboard impact is impossible. The outdoor advertising industry would like us to believe being objective is impossible so that we will surrender and submit to their demands. To the contrary, judging negative impact is subjective because objective studies have not been conducted on the impact of billboards on adjacent properties.

At least no studies had been done until an urban planner in Philadelphia completed one two months ago. Jonathan Snyder's analysis concluded:

In Philadelphia, there is a statistically significant correlation between real estate value (as measured by sales price) and proximity to billboards. Properties located within 500 ft. of a billboard have a decreased real estate value of $30,826. Additionally, homes located further than 500 ft. but within a census tract/community where billboards are present experience a decrease of $947 for every billboard in that census tract. Income for strict sign control cities is higher than that for not-strict cities. Furthermore, the home vacancy and poverty rates for strict control cities are lower. Having strict sign controls does not negatively impact the economic prosperity of a city.

Nobody challenged the billboard lobbyist when he claimed that judging negative impact is subjective, and my guess is that is what he is used to. During Commissioners' comments, former council member Stewart Clifton indicated that property owner feedback might be reduced simply to whether or not they liked or disliked the look and colors of certain signs. He seemed to indicate that the public would not give reliable feedback on property values outside of aesthetic taste. That seemed to reinforce the negative-impact-is-subjective-at-best mantra. Again, nobody was around to challenge this characterization that a public process would produce unreliable data.

Adkins & TNGOP-in-Chief
Commissioner Greg Adkins responded with the deference to big business that he developed a reputation for when he was on Metro Council, arguing that there is no difference whatsoever between conventional bill boards and tri-face billboards. Without the slightest nod to democratic process, Adkins told the group he was going to vote against including public feedback because, "Advertising is advertising". Never mind that tri-fold billboards triple the volume of advertising and risk reducing a community's reputation to advertising space.

When challenged by fellow commissioner Phil Ponder to clarify what he meant by the statement, "Tri-face billboards do not change use", Adkins did a fairly poor job of clarifying. He merely repeated several times, "They do not change use", as if it were self-evident, even as Ponder gave examples of how all advertising is not the same. Assuming that Adkins was not just communicating poorly, I concluded that he had simply rehearsed some pro-industry talking points on use without critically reflecting on the meaning of "use".

Unfortunately, there was nobody available to counter what seemed to be a shared ambivalence for democratic process informing regulation of outdoor advertising, which is dominated by loads of money and by swarms of lobbyists. The staff seemed unprepared to deal with questions about legal ramifications. However, they were not entirely to blame, since it was a public hearing. Nobody spoke during the hearing for the bill. CM Karen Johnson was not in attendance. There were no community leaders present to speak in favor of approval. The meeting became an echo chamber for pro-industry talking points and uncritical questions.

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