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Billboard ordinance gets put off till next year

Looks like that proposed new billboard ordinance is a bit more controversial than it first appeared.

The battle of the billboards, slated to erupt Wednesday at City Council, probably will be pushed off until early next year.

A growing outcry from beautification groups led to a parley on Friday between billboard opponents and Mayor Bill White. The administration will ask for the delay until Jan. 9, according to agenda director Marty Stein.

The city wanted a quick legal settlement with Clear Channel Outdoor, Inc. that would speed up the dismantling of smaller billboards, while allowing the company to move some larger ones to new spots. The city’s 23 scenic districts would be off limits.

Critics pounced on the deal, saying the “relocation provision” for qualifying larger billboards is an unfair giveaway to the billboard industry, and a step backward. As part of the agreement, Clear Channel could “relocate” the permit for a billboard, but build a new billboard from scratch on the new site. New billboard construction has been forbidden in Houston since 1980.

[…]

Under the deal, the company would voluntarily remove 881 billboards, a two-thirds reduction in the category of small- and medium-size billboards. Some of those billboards were not slated to come down until 2013, and others might never have come down, since they are located on federal highways and are beyond the city’s legal reach.

“We want more signs down, and quicker,” City Attorney Arturo Michel said.

Critics don’t see it that way.

“A relocation of an existing billboard is a new billboard for the residents that have to look at it. That’s a serious concern for me,” Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck said.

“A relocation means they can take an old billboard down in a marginal location or a strange location, and relocate it anywhere, at will, except scenic districts,” said shopping center developer Ed Wulfe, a member of beautification group Scenic Houston.

Wulfe said he was concerned about wooden billboards being rebuilt in new spots as steel structures with longer life expectancies.

And according to an email that I got yesterday, you can add City Controller Annise Parker to the ordinance’s opponents:

City Controller Annise Parker urges City Council to prohibit relocated billboards in any new billboard agreement.

“While the agreement was drafted with the best of intentions, Houston citizens overwhelmingly desire and deserve far fewer billboards,” she said. “We can’t allow more than 400 small and medium-sized billboards to be relocated — possibly twice — and remain up for the next 20 years. ”

City Council is considering an agreement hammered out between Clear Channel Outdoor, one of the largest outdoor advertising firms, and city representatives which reduces the total number of billboards but allows 466 small and medium-sized billboards to be relocated.

The new agreement would amend the current billboard ordinance passed in 1980 that requires all billboards not protected by federal law to come down by 2013.

That ordinance has reduced the city’s 11,000+ billboard faces to about 4,500. Various ordinance provisions have been in litigation since it passed nearly 30 years ago. The city’s recent legal victory prompted a new look at the ordinance. Whatever City Council passes, billboards along federal highways and other federal corridors, such as Main and Westheimer, are protected by federal law. The state has also said it would not challenge billboards along state roads.

As I wrote before, it comes down to whether or not you think the faster deadline for removals outweighs the fact that fewer billboards will ultimately come down. I lean towards a Yes on that, pending whatever the details are in the deal, but it’s a close call. It’s fine by me that this has gotten some pushback from high profile folks, as I think the issue could stand a little high-profile debate. We’ll see what happens.

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