It’s hard to believe that a metropolis named “America’s Cleanest City” just four years ago by Forbes magazine, partly for its vast green open spaces and visual aesthetics, and which relies so heavily on tourism thanks to this status, would consider such a thing, but the day has come.
On Thursday, April 12th, at 9am at Miami City Hall in Coconut Grove, the City of Miami will discuss an ordinance that proposes to rent out the rooftops of major city-owned venues (ones that host 1,000 or more people) to billboard companies. And not just your typical billboards but LED digital billboards that emit an offensive glare and change ads every 8 seconds. 24 hours a day. 365 days a year.
Named in the ordinance as the most immediate targets for the florescent assault: The historic Olympia Theatre at the Gusman Center, The Children’s Museum on Watson Island and the city-owned Knight Convention Center on the Miami River.
This is a first reading of a series of amendments that Miami-Dade planners and attorneys made to the county’s sign ordinance. The revisions purportedly legalize the controversial billboards, something the City has already approved, but some argue that the amendment, even if passed, will still make the billboards illegal per County law.
“The city cannot override a county ordinance,” explains Barbara Bisno, President of the activist group Scenic Miami, Inc., a nonprofit Florida corporation that focuses on improving the quality of life in Greater Miami.
Nonetheless, it has many concerned residents worried, as this ongoing battle, which has been back and forth before Commissioners for years, continues to drag on with determination. Some fear an approval of the action could lead to the undoing of decades’ worth of regulations designed to restrict the size, number and location of such signs.
The Commission meeting, open to the public, will hear 2-minute testimonies then take a vote on the amendment, which proposes that municipalities can opt out of the County Sign Ordinance, which prohibits the use of LED billboards.
A Cash-Strapped City
The push for sections of Miami to transform into a pocket-sized Times Square is the brainchild of Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado and other city officials, which staunchly defend the idea, stating that The Children’s Museum and the Gusman Center are struggling financially to stay open. The revenue made off the Knight Convention Center’s sign, on the other hand, would go into the city’s general fund.
The City would gain much-needed funds, they say, including fees for municipal permits (about $1,000) as well as rental fees for the LED billboards.
Former Hialeah politician Herman Echevarria, also a former ad exec, is a proponent of the plan. He formed a nonprofit trust to buy out the Gusman when it was threatened with closure from city cuts and says that the ticket sales just don’t cover the operating costs. And though he persuaded 50 donors to pledge $10,000 annually for five years, he says, that’s still not enough to keep it open. Echevarria estimates that an LED billboard on top of the Gusman could bring in $500,000 a year—perhaps a reasonable argument for anyone who wants to see an historic building remain in use.
But it’s not just anti-billboard activists up in arms. Some politicians find the idea offensive as well, such as Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower, who recently stated publicly that she is “appalled by the idea” and vows a fight.
“Rather than reduce expenses, elected officials have been sold on the scam of putting billboards on taxpayer-owned properties,” vents VP and co-founder of Scenic Miami, Peter R. Ehrlich Jr. “The outdoor advertising industry has full access to the Mayor of Miami and to most commissioners.
“These billboard lobbyists work behind the scenes at every level of government,” he adds. “Outdoor advertising companies are big political campaign contributors out to advance their own goals and maximize profits.”
What’s the Big Deal?
As Ehrlich points out, LED digital billboards not only devalue nearby property, degrade quality of life, create safety issues and threaten our city’s largest source of employment, but they’re also illegal.
“Dusty” Melton, a lobbyist who helped write the county billboard ordinance in 1984, is a vocal critic and points out that all LED billboards are illegal, since the technology is not even mentioned in the county sign code and anything not listed or mentioned is prohibited.
He states, it also breaks two of the 10 essential provisions laid out in the County Sign Ordinance: one being that billboards must sit on at least 10 acres and the other being that the ads must coincide with the goods or services offered at that site. Which is not the case with any of the proposed LED signs.
“Technically, what the City wants to do is illegal under the County Sign Ordinance, since this new ordinance authorizes ads to be shown for goods and services not sold on site and thus do not meet the Class C regulations of County Code Section 33-107,” explains Ehrlich. “Besides, cities that allow digital billboards violate the Highway Beautification Act, which prohibits ‘intermittent lights,’” he adds.
So, Why No Enforcement?
The County did warn the City last year that LEDs are not allowed by the County Sign Ordinance, but no enforcement action has been taken.
Why Dade County doesn’t intervene could be for a number of reasons. It may be lacking in financial and/or human resources to fight the battle, or perhaps even political appetite. To go after a powerhouse like Miami, Dade County would need to consider this a top priority, which apparently it hasn’t since numerous LED digital billboards already exist scattered throughout Greater Miami. (Bear in mind, Dade County alone is larger than Vermont and New Hampshire together, so it has plenty of other issues to attend to.)
Bad for Business
Meanwhile, as the City argues that this will bring in overdue revenue, the long-term effects of such visual pollution could backfire on a city so reliant upon tourism and the dollars it brings to local businesses.
Though no survey has been done yet, it’s a plausible conclusion that most visitors to Miami come for the subtropical beauty, open green spaces and spectacular views of the many blue-green waterways– not for LED digital billboards that distract one’s eyes every few seconds.
“Tourists will see these disgusting LED billboards on Watson Island and associate visual pollution with South Beach,” worries Ehrlich. And the City of Miami Beach won’t even keep any of the revenue. Instead, the City of Miami proper—as well as the Port of Miami—will keep it all. So, it’s a lose-lose for South Beach.
The Children’s Museum billboards, for example, will block water views both ways. Views of the Miami River will be cluttered with billboards atop the Knight Convention Center. And placing a billboard on the Gusman Center also jeopardizes its current place on the National Historical Register, as it is currently listed as one of the 100 most beautiful structures in the state.
Bad for Residents, Too
“Elected officials do not understand that billboards reduce property values for all buildings within proximity,” says Ehrlich.
And despite the fact that local residents are taxpayers who shell out for the salaries of local government officials, their voice has been completely ignored through the closed-door process. So, even as residents living in neighborhoods to be affected stay in the dark, billboard companies are choosing the locations and content they want to show on their massive billboards.
If this passes, residents on Hibiscus, Star and Palm Islands, for example, will especially enjoy the glare of changing ads night and day, not unlike having an apartment-size TV right outside their windows set on automatic channel-surfing all night long. (Let’s not forget what happened to Kramer of Seinfeld fame when the chicken joint opened up across the street). An average LED digital billboard changes images, or advertisements, about 10,000 times a day.
“It’s an assault on our quality of life,” says Bisno, a Venetian Islands resident and former U.S. assistant attorney.
Then There’s the Safety Issue…
The two LED digital billboards proposed to sit atop The Children’s Museum will face both directions and be seen by both east- and west-bound drivers on the MacArthur Causeway, which, some argue, is clearly a safety hazard.
“Drivers are certain to find themselves unwittingly looking up amidst traffic every time an ad changes along the highway,” says Ehrlich.
LED digital billboards are the brightest object in a driver’s field of vision, especially at night, and can be seen as far away as half a mile. They cause inadvertent and instinctual glances that distract drivers, with the images rotating every 6 to 8 seconds. This causes one to keep looking up to see what’s next. Some complex messages can take 5 seconds to comprehend. This ignores and violates the 2-second distraction threshold.
Which May Explain the Rush
With the constant pushing by the LED billboard companies and their political counterparts over the past year, again and again, it makes one wonder if there isn’t more to the hurry than just money. As it turns out, that may be the case.
The Federal Highway Administration has multiple studies coming to completion soon regarding LED billboards and their safety alongside highways. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) is also sponsoring preliminary research that will lead to future investigations. Meanwhile, The Transportation Research Board of The National Academy of Sciences is conducting a human-factors workshop and will manage the AASHTO research.
Once studies are completed and if the LED signs are found to be unsafe, any required changes to the sign operations may cost the local government millions in compensation, which would make it much harder to get these billboards approved in the first place, thus hastening LED companies to negotiate their deals and installations now.
And an additional dilemma remains: Who will be liable if accidents are influenced by the signs if it’s shown that governments knowingly permitted their construction in the face of pending critical safety studies?
The Highway Beautification Act requires cash compensation to sign owners of billboards on Interstate and federal-aid highways, defined by the value of the structure, plus lost revenue, making each digital sign worth millions of dollars. The cost of compensating billboard owners would be enormous, even in the course of normal highway widening and improvements if signs must be removed or taken down.
Cities allowing these devices now could become involved in decades-long litigation and even end up paying to remove the devices as well as compensate the companies for the cost of the boards and lost revenue over the expected lifetime, just to avoid extraordinary legal costs.
To Top It Off…
LED signs are energy hogs.
Their energy costs are more than 20 times that of traditional static signs illuminated by four lamps at night. This is partly because digital billboards are comprised of hundreds of LED bulbs, each using 2-10 watts, which stay lit 24 hours a day. A 14’x48’ LED digital billboard, for example, can have 900-10,000 diodes, plus the players, which control the changeable images, and, of course, fans needed to cool them.
In locales like Southern Florida, a tremendous amount of heat is generated by the LEDs, especially during summer, and therefore, air conditioning (AC) is also needed. And since energy drawn from the grid is, of course, highest during hot months, it leads one to wonder, what happens during peak energy days? You know, the times of the year when utility companies offer homeowners a discount if they will disconnect their air conditioning from the grid.
So far, no known conversation has been held around this. Would LED AC units be disconnected or go dark during high energy demands? To believe yes would likely be delusional.
To put things in perspective, a static billboard with four Halide lamps uses $960 worth of energy per year. An average U.S. home, by comparison, spends $1,512 a year on energy. However, a 14’x48’ LED digital billboard runs up $22,318 in energy costs annually (based on an actual Florida reading, per Blightfighters.org).
But There Is Hope
With the proliferation of LED billboards everywhere, some cities have come to ban them outright.
“In fact, four states that depend and thrive on tourism ban billboards,” says Ehrlich. “Think Hawaii and Vermont. Yet Miami-Dade officials bend over backwards to permit billboards and thereby ruin our scenic environment.”
Battles against LED billboard companies are being waged across the country with impressive victories by citizens of Rapid City, SD; Tacoma, WA; and Seattle, whose citizens stopped the proliferation of these boards at the city level.
It has even inspired residents of St. Petersburg, FL, to recently and successfully send a strong public message to their City Council that digital billboards are not wanted.
What You Can Do
Fortunately, it’s not too late.
A second reading of the ordinance must happen and then pass at a public hearing, yet to be announced. In the meantime, you can make your voice heard.
Scenic Miami, Inc., whose mission is to “stop the proliferation of all kinds of outdoor advertising” and protect Miami’s scenic beauty, encourages everyone to take action against unwanted visual pollution. The organization consists of local homeowners, neighborhood associations and community organizations. The coalition has no political ties and works to educate the public and drive the community to fight “spam on a stick,” as they call it.
Their allies include The Urban Environment League, The Sierra Club, The Tropical Audubon Society, Miami Neighborhoods United, Scenic America and Citizens for a Scenic Florida, Inc., among others.
You can join Scenic Miami (scenicmiami.org) to help show elected officials how strong the local support is among residents to keep our city beautiful for generations to come. As a member, you will receive action alerts, find out about important petitions that need signatures and learn where are the critical hearings and commission meetings you should attend.
You can also start by contacting your five City of Miami Commissioners and Mayor Regalado (email addresses are on Scenic Miami’s site) and let them know that you oppose the ordinance (file #12-00240) reviewed on April 12th. Write letters to the editor to express your opposition if you can.
“The local scenic movement is rapidly gaining supporters,” says Bisno, noting the hundreds of emails local residents and organizations are currently sending to commissioners and administrators.
Scenic Miami also writes up assessments of public hearings, in case you cannot attend, and reports on any relevant signed legislation, including violations, enforcement actions, fines collected, illegal signs removed, etc.