I attended tonight's Metro Council LED sign workshop, and the first thing I have to do is credit at-large member Charlie Tygard for doing the honorable thing. He could have made the whole thing a kangaroo court by allowing only sign supporters like Sonny West and Bobby Joslin have the microphone, but he opened the floor up to anyone who wanted to speak, including opponents, who outnumbered the non-Council supporters. Mr. Tygard deserves credit for running a fair meeting. It remains to be seen whether opponents' feedback will produce a fair bill for third reading.
Sign baron Bobby Joslin and sign designer Ben Doden from White House were among the first to speak. Mr. Joslin fell back on what I consider the weak argument that he could identify only 300 properties around Nashville that could afford to buy signs he said would cost $20,000 each. He maintained that the idea that 9 out of 10 properties could not afford these signs was a natural deterrent. But market-driven rationales for changes in the law do not make for strong legal logic in my opinion, and Mr. Doden's following analogy bears that out. Doden compared the shift from internally lit signs to LEDs to the move from typewriters to computers.
Initially, computers were too expensive for many to buy, but the rise in demand and the increase in production led to the increased affordability of computers. Likewise, LED signs will become more affordable over time if the law is changed. That is not a strong argument for allowing LED signs in neighborhoods. While making a similar point later, the opposing Donelson-Hermitage Association President maintained that she was able to find LED signs on line for a quarter of what Mr. Joslin was claiming that they cost. She compared the availability of LED signs to the history of price drops in microwave ovens and VCRs. The argument that many churches won't be able to afford LEDs is just lame.
Mr. Joslin was also caught in contradiction when a Council Member (I think it was either Jason Holleman or Sean McGuire) asked him straight up if LEDs are competitive with neon signage and whether people are demanding the former over the latter. Mr. Joslin replied that LEDs do not compete with neon signs. The Council Member responded, "Why does your website say to 'Be sure to ask about the alternative to neon, LEDs light strips?'"
What could Mr. Joslin do at that point but change the topic to some study that "shows" no connection between traffic accidents and LED signage, despite what some local blogs he read were saying to the contrary? But even the change in subject to potential for causing accidents was addressed later by a Woodlawn Neighborhood Association opponent who identified herself as a gerontologist. She argued the common sense point that there is already concern about aging drivers being easily distracted, and adding more bright sign pollution to the streets would only increase the risk of accidents among the elderly.
The most telling moment for me was when the pastor of the church precipitating this bill was given the chance to speak. Rev. Ricky Lee made no bones about his wish that changes not just be made for his church but for "comprehensive" changes to be made across Nashville. That is quite a departure from his comments at the Public Hearing and from Mr. Tygard's presentation of a guy just trying to get his church a sign like the YMCA down the street has. At that point I was struck by the fact that the burden was on his side to produce all of the other church leaders that he was speaking for. Several different neighborhood associations representing hundreds of members have made efforts to get their representatives out to speak to Metro Council in opposition to this bill, and yet the Council seems to be giving one guy the benefit of the doubt on imposing his wish across almost every other neighborhood in Nashville.
Along these same lines, one of the sponsors of the LED bill, Jim Hodge, made a serious allegation: he claimed that under the current law churches were having to be put in the position of lying to Metro's Board of Zoning Appeals in order to get the zone change that would allow them to have these signs. As outlandish as it was, it was still a point that did not directly address the problem of passing a comprehensive sign bill that was said to only benefit a few organizations. And one LED opponent cut through the audacity of CM Hodge's allegation by arguing that anyone who claims that deceit was used by those who have received BZA approval owes them an apology.
It actually turned out to be a significant meeting, because opponents and proponents had to stand toe-to-toe and argue merits and sift out empty symbolism. Planning Director Rick Bernhardt told the group that he would prefer that zoning changes be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. CM Megan Barry argued that the Council needs to give BZA greater guidance and clarification for approving such zoning requests rather than forcing the LED bill on all neighborhoods across the city.
But the unknown factor is the power of the Metro Council and its votes. We do not know whether they are going to take the controversy seriously, and others who were absent will not see it. There was a noticeable number of Council Members absent, including my own representative, Erica Gilmore, and 3 at-larges, Ronnie Steine, Jerry Maynard, and Tim Garrett. If you have not contacted your Council Member, yet, please do so and ask them to have community meetings before final reading on this bill to find out whether their neighborhoods support more signage of a light emitting nature. And ask them to bring the bill sponsors with them to answer your questions.