Thursday, March 27, 2008

Planning Commission Votes to Disapprove LED Bill as Amended; Council Must Have 2/3rds to Approve

Once again in a public meeting opponents of Charlie Tygard's LED bill outnumbered proponents, although at today's Planning Commission meeting two churches (rather than just one) brought supporters of the bill. CM Tygard kicked off the meeting by telling Commissioners that they were going to hear a lot of criticism about "Vegas-style" billboards even though the signs he was advocating were not "Vegas-style." He also told the group that he would be willing to defer the bill until a compromise was worked out. He even mentioned the possibility of forming a sign task force that would be broadly representative of the Nashville community. That sounds like a great idea to me, but it should have come before he ever introduced the LED bill.

The Planning Department had a great presentation explaining why they recommended disapproval. They even produced a couple of short videos of many of the LED signs and billboards that currently exist in Nashville to show what is currently possible given the lack of guidelines and enforcement. When Jim Gotto, the Council representative on the Commission, criticized the first video for not reflecting the "Wal-Greens-style" sign that CM Tygard had in mind in his bill, Rick Bernhardt replied that the "Wal-Greens-style" had the same capacity to do what the bigger streaming Opryland-style boards did, and that compliance was being left up to the sign-owners and enforcement was practically non-existent. Right on. If we currently have nothing in place to enforce restrictions on LED signs in Nashville, why should neighborhoods have faith that churches, schools, and cultural institutions are going to restrain themselves on these signs? And it's already tough enough to get Codes to respond to other property violations. Digital signs just add one more potential problem to neglect.

At one point someone at the microphone told a story about how enforcement officials in another community had to tell one sign operator to dull the brightness of their red LED sign, which could be seen across a river a quarter of a mile away by some who were calling in alarms after they confused the red glow with a fire. And one opponent, Keith Newcomb, brought large nighttime pictures that he took of the YMCA with the LED next to Harpeth Heights Baptist Church (the congregation asking CM Tygard for help). The glare from the red Y sign dominates the shots and it competes with the neon lights of commercial enterprises in the distance. Sign-sellers hawk LEDs as an effective replacement to neon signs.

Most of the Commissioners expressed reluctance to support the LED bill. CM Gotto seized the opportunity to scold opponents who he said intended to prohibit LEDs altogether, which seemed to be a straw man argument to me, since most of the opponents I've heard or read advocate prohibiting such signs strictly in largely residential areas. They expressed the hope that differences could be worked out and they voted to recommend disapproval to the Council. Metro Council is not required to disapprove the bill now, but the Commission action does require them to pass it with a super majority (2/3's) rather than with a simple majority. It also means that council members will have to go on record with their votes, and hence, be more accountable than they were the first two votes.

The two council members who spoke in support the LED bill earlier today seem to want to save it because "so much work has already gone into it." I'm not sure that bill sponsors pursued the hard work that matters most: working with local communities to come up with sign guidelines that are negotiated and that suit both the churches and the neighborhoods affected. Part of the cost of that may be that the work put in before now was wasted. If Mr. Tygard is serious about letting a task force decide this issue, then that group may undo all of the work put into getting this bill through several readings and committee meetings. That's the consequence of neglecting one's obligations to constituents on the front end.

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