Planning and Zoning wrangles over digital billboards, directs staff on new rules

Following a lengthy public-comment period and debate among its members, Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted 5-2 to have city staff draw up new rules concerning digital billboards. Specifically, the rules would increase setback requirements and ban digital billboards in certain corridors.

An earlier motion to suspend approval of any new digital billboards for up to a year while staff studied the matter failed 3-4, with commission members Jane Mathews, Kristy Carter and Holly Shriner voting in favor.

About 30 people showed up for the meeting; most of those who spoke condemned digital billboards as dangerous eyesores, and some called for banning all billboards, digital or otherwise. Asheville currently has nine digital billboards; the recent one on Merrimon Avenue drew particular venom.

“The biggest threat now facing our communities and highways is the proliferation of digital billboards,” Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods member Alan Escovitz declared. “They shoot huge amounts of light into our neighborhoods and the night sky.”

A 2006 ban on new billboards of all types within the city limits expires at the end of 2014. In the meantime, however, billboard owners are allowed to erect a new conventional billboard in a given location if they remove an equivalent amount of billboard space elsewhere. For digital billboards, the company must give up three times as much conventional-billboard square footage as it’s gaining. The equation doesn’t take into account the fact that one digital billboard can display multiple messages. During public comment, Bobby Soule of Lamar Advertising said his company has closed 100 billboards since the ban took effect while adding only eight.

And because advertising rates are lower for digital billboards, he continued, they’re more affordable for local businesses and nonprofits.

“We look forward to working with the city and finding a win-win situation,” said Soule, whose company does not own the Merrimon Avenue billboard.

Some commission members were leery of a yearlong moratorium on the billboards; others favored more restrictive rules. Eventually, a majority settled on stricter setback requirements and banning new digital billboards in certain areas (Merrimon Avenue and Sweeten Creek Road were specifically mentioned). Once staff drafts the rules, the commission will consider them before making a recommendation to City Council.

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