Upcoming battle over billboards looms

Upcoming battle over billboards looms
After the City-County Council voted for a temporary moratorium on new billboards so its lenient, loophole-ridden billboard regulations could be revised, a draft of the new proposed regulations was released for public review. Unfortunately, the sign committee (heavily represented by the billboard industry) proposes rules that are considerably more lenient than surrounding counties’ and will continue to make Marion County a dumping ground for billboards. There has been only a meager increase of the required setback of a billboard to a residential district (from 100 feet to 300 feet), compared to the fastest growing surrounding counties, which, if they don’t prohibit billboards altogether, require at least 2,000 feet of separation from residences or limit billboards to heavy manufacturing districts. Some standards in the proposed ordinance are actually more lenient than the current one, allowing for more billboards on interstates. The proposed rules continue to allow billboards in clearly inappropriate zoning districts, such as neighborhood commercial and special use districts, which are often located adjacent to residential areas and are often intended to be on a more pedestrian, human scale. It was made clear to the committee that a permanent ban on billboards was not the objective, even though years of excessively lenient sign regulations have given the billboard industry a wealth of sites that would be grandfathered and ultimately more valuable if there were a ban. It was dismissed by the pro-billboard interests on this committee and city staff that most of Hamilton County does not allow billboards and has not for quite some time. Surrounding municipalities and counties with very strict sign and billboard regulations happen to be Marion County’s fiercest competitors for employers and residents. Some of the executives and presidents of billboard companies that have complained the loudest about tightening billboard regulations choose to live in cities where billboards are banned, such as Carmel, Fishers and Noblesville. The billboard industry would have you think that there is something constitutionally protected about a 14-by-50-foot billboard standing 40 feet in height, but this is not the case. Local governments have a well-established right to regulate the size, manner and placement of signs as long as they do not regulate speech, or the sign message. For example, Greenwood and Johnson County, and recently Hendricks County, all have adopted very strict billboard regulations. The largest billboard that is allowed in Hendricks County is 300 square feet. Yet Marion County wants to continue to allow 14-by-50-foot, or 700-square-foot, billboards. This is such a large sign that you often see two advertisers on one sign. Johnson County allows larger-sized billboards, but they are only permitted on Interstate 65. In fact, Interstate 65 is the only place you will have to look at a billboard in Greenwood or the unincorporated areas of Johnson County. Johnson County requires that billboards must be 2,000 feet apart and from any residential or historic district. If you don’t think these regulations make a difference to our city’s image and our attractiveness to potential employers and residents, just drive around the city and notice how billboards escalate the sign wars on our local streets. I recommend a drive down West Washington Street to the Hendricks County line. You will see billboards and signs competing for your attention, but little pride in most of the buildings or grounds of the businesses they occupy. Then cross the county line into Plainfield. Billboards dissipate. Businesses are clearly identified, neatly landscaped and approachable. You will notice similar scenarios by driving along 96th Street (the Hamilton County line). Compare the north side to the south side and see for yourself which community makes the more favorable impression. Some cities and counties know what Marion County can’t seem to figure out. Make your city an attractive, desirable place where people want to be and businesses will follow. While it is true that Indianapolis has a beautiful downtown, that is largely because downtown requires that any new building or sign undergo an architectural review, known as Regional Center review. Don’t people who live in the outlying areas deserve the same recognition that our community’s appearance is important, too? Getz is vice president of Greater Allisonville Community Council. The billboard ordinance is expected to be introduced to the City-County Council on Oct. 27. Readers can contact their City-County Council representatives and at large members at www.indygov.org/council/.

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