Billboards and (a lack of) Public Process
Recently, Indiana Landmarks, Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations and Historic Urban Neighborhoods of Indianapolis held a joint meeting for neighborhoods to discuss a common response to the currently proposed Billboard ordinance [Proposal 14—250 to initiate the revision of billboard zoning codes allowing digital billboards].
At its core, the ordinance, which was either written by, or at a minimum, guided by the local billboard industry allows the replacement of existing static billboards with electronic billboards; the sort that change what they’re advertising every few seconds. The ordinance would require the industry to remove one existing billboard, plus obviously the one that’s replaced, for a total of 25 the first year, 20 for four years thereafter, and four per year in subsequent years. The order of such removal would be first from Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission Districts, then from non-conforming use billboards (those that wouldn’t be permitted today but are grandfathered) and then to the company’s discretion.
While it’s true that the assembled group strongly dislikes all billboards, that’s not a universally held position. I admit to really liking the old Ossip Eyeglass billboard that sat in Broad Ripple for a long time, but honestly, that’s because it reminded me of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg in the Great Gatsby. Beyond that, however, I find them displeasing in most settings outside of Times Square and Tokyo. It’s also true that Meridian Kessler has very few billboards – 54th & College and perhaps a couple along Maple Road – one by the Fairgrounds comes to mind. I was told Broad Ripple has three. It’s noteworthy that we aren’t talking about completely new billboards here (those are still governed by the existing ordinance) but just the retrofitted ones. Apparently the City has no idea just how many existing billboards are just plain illegal.
What’s interesting is the length to which government supporters have gone to push this ordinance, when in fact the City gets almost nothing out of the deal. It does collect property taxes on the ground beneath them, but just the normal commercial property taxes, and not much acreage is generally involved. Yet, the City chose not to include this issue in the REZONE Indy process, nor even to allow Department of Metropolitan Development staff to have input. The ordinance was prepared by the Council (Mary Moriarity Adams is the sponsor) and presented to the MDC for approval, where it would follow the usual path of MDC approval, Council approval and then back to the MDC for final approval.
What the industry gains from the ordinance is something in the range of a ten fold increase in revenue from each converted billboard (because I presume, it can run a lot more ads, all without the usual expense of retrofitting by plastering up new paper). There was some discussion at the meeting that a billboard can generate $300K per year in revenue for traditional billboards, so there’s a lot of money involved. Other communities have also negotiated a much higher “elimination for existing retrofit” deal and also receive a much higher revenue from taxes on the signs. There seems to be a trend towards eliminating them altogether. At any event, a lot of campaigns could be funded with billboard company contributions, still leaving highly profitable companies behind.
My sense is that the ordinance has little value, and a high probability of harm. At a minimum, it ought to be tabled until after the next election (Mayor, Counsel) and probably at least be renegotiated to the point that more advantage could be gained for the City. It ought to be put back into the REZONE process to allow for more public input, of which there hadn’t been much until recently because of the way the ordinance was put forth.