Photo:The St. Augustine Record

“The writing could be on the wall for the idea of allowing digital billboards in St. Johns County….

The Planning and Zoning Agency on Thursday excluded the component, which would include implementation of a two-year pilot program along Interstate 95, from its 5-1 recommendation to approve changes to signage regulations in the Land Development Code.

Board member Jon Woodard was alone in dissent, questioning whether the electric signs would be any more dangerous than traditional boards lit up at night and touting some potential benefits for business owners unable to take advantage of traditional boards due to cost or availability.

While industry representatives said going digital is another sign of the times, residents speaking in opposition said the boards are distracting by nature, costly and pose increased safety and environmental hazards over their canvas counterparts.
County staff had recommended approval of a two-year test run ‘to allow time for multiple electronic billboards to be erected and observed, then assessing the strengths and possible downsides of the program.’

The proposed changes would allow billboards using light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, to project multiple advertisements on a single billboard. Those advertisements would remain static on the billboard no less than eight seconds before changing, on an automated basis, to a different advertisement. Provisions would be included to prohibit animation, flashing, or the appearance of moving objects on the face of the billboards. Locations of digital billboards would be along ‘appropriately zoned’ parcels adjacent to I-95. There are also several limitations regarding separation between signs, distance from existing structures, as well as size and brightness…
Nelson said he didn’t find any compelling evidence regarding safety hazards either way, but that he opposed the program due to some lingering concerns.

‘It’s not really a pilot program because we’re stuck with these,’ he said. ‘We should be darn sure that’s what we want because there’s no going back.’

Joseph Cearley, special projects manager for the county, told PZA members just four existing, conforming boards along I-95 had been identified as eligible for replacement by a digital board for the pilot, all of which were owned by one outdoor media company.

Martin said the county would risk facilitating a monopoly if it went ahead with the pilot program under the current parameters and allowing only one company to benefit. (The board recommended the County Commission address this issue and others if it decides to move forward with a pilot program.)

There were other battles.

The program would feature a points-based swap-down system requiring removal of four to five traditional billboards for every one digital sign installed. Swap-down standards would apply to instances where a new digital billboard is installed or a digital billboard replaces a conforming traditional billboard. Nonconforming traditional billboards that have been grandfathered in would not be replaced with new digital billboards.

According to county documents, the current swap-down system for traditional boards has already reduced the number of active billboards within the county from 579 in the year 2000 to 301 in 2015, for an overall reduction of 278…
Existing signs are expected to be grandfathered in as nonconforming signs and held to certain limitations.,,

The PZA’s recommendations and comments will be forwarded to the County Commission, which is expected to revisit the items at its April 4 meeting for a third and final hearing, required by statute to start after 5 p.m.”

— Jake Martin, The St. Augustine Record