Of all the things Montgomery Township's Billboard Overlay District amendment changed on Monday night for the future use of digital billboards, the rate of changeable copy and the size of digital pixels on a billboard raised some questions from billboard owners.
Supervisors eventually approved the amendments to the Billboard Overlay District zoning ordinance 4-0 to get the law on the books. Supervisors said the debates brought up at the meeting could lead to amending the ordinance in the near future.
One of the two major changes to the district were extending it 1,500 feet on the easterly side to include one existing, non-conforming billboard.
Since 2003-04, the overlay district has accommodated two billboards, according to land planner E. Van Rieker. The changes do not trigger any additional number of billboards.
The second change limited the change of digital copy to once every 30 seconds.
Rieker said the district did not need to be as wide as it was, but it extended its length to anticipate more billboards in the future.
The main goal of the changes was to prevent billboards from being erected along the new Route 202 Parkway. The district limits billboards to Route 309.
"Basically the size of billboard is unchanged, the number of billboards are unchanged, the spacing between billboards is unchanged, the dimensions to comply to in the district is unchanged. What we’ve added are standards that deal with electronic changeable copy," said Rieker. "We were very stingy in the approach. It is township's intention to allow billboards to flourish, and we provide that in fair, limited way."
Rieker said the township wants to allow the industry to enjoy the improvements and evolution of billboards to electronic changeable copy.
The once per 30 seconds limitation must be instantaneous, he said, with no flashing or scrolling or anything similar to what you might see in Las Vegas.
"We kept the main ordinance in place. We changed the text and touched up a small part of the existing ordinance district," Rieker said. "We think that the one change in 30 seconds is more than adequate, given the speed limit that is typically experienced along 309 and instantaneous change is preferable. It allows the industry to have changeable copy, but not allow a nuisance or be a distraction to drivers."
Rieker said the amendments are proactive in that changeable copy is not required today for billboards, but that could change in the future.
Supervisors vice chairman Joe Walsh said billboards in the township are by-right. He was concerned that a vendor could ask for a reduction in a 30-second flip through a special exception.
Rieker said the changes are conservative and they will see how it works out.
"If time would suggest, some standards could be modified without compromising traffic safety and compromising adverse impact on neighboring land uses," Rieker said. "We could consider a text amendment."
Resident Matthew Bradley had a problem with the text amendment, specifically the 30-second flip for changeable type.
Bradley, coincidentally, also works as the real estate manager for Clear Channel Outdoor, a local billboard owner. Clear Channel Outdoor operates in 37 of the 42 states where digital billboards are allowed by law.
Bradley said the common rate is eight seconds, not 30 seconds.
He told the board that PennDOT prevents the company from using copy that flashes or scrolls.
"While we appreciate the township’s forward thinking in respect to billboards to operate digital, there is one component of the ordinance that ignores state and federal guidelines," Bradley said.
He said PennDOT and the Federal Highway Administration spell out guidelines for the rate of changeable copy on billboards.
"None of (the 37 billboards Clear Channel operates in 37 of 42 states) have less than a 10-second delay," he said. "We have 24 billboards in the tri-state area, which we use as a network. If this would go to digital, and it would be 30 seconds, you cannot operate a billboard with a 30-second delay with 24 of them being eight seconds."
He said brightness and everything else is regualted through PennDOT.
"The duration of each display is between four and 10 seconds. Eight seconds is recommended. Where did 30 seconds come from? I have no idea," Bradley said.
Walsh said PennDOT revisions said copy must remain unchanged for a minimum of five seconds.
"We're talking about max. There's a range. No less than five. We're at 30 seconds," Walsh said. "I think a lot has to do with the type of road we are dealing with: this is not 95."
Planning commission chairman Jay Glickman said Bradley appeared at the planning commission meeting with the same argument.
Glickman said Bradley "had the opportunity to make a presentation to the township prior to this evening." Bradley argued that the public hearing was not advertised on the township website and found out about it "through a leak."
"The advertisement for this meeting was not on the website until yesteday morning. That’s how informed I was," he said.
Glickman dissed Bradley, saying he had actual notice of the planning commission meeting and he was there with a presentation.
Glickman told supervisors the planning commission doesn't care what the billboard companies want; it cares about the township.
"Our concern is the township, not the billboard companies," he said. "That minimum is a minimum amount of time required. We don’t care that most billboards in this area owned by that company change every eight seconds. The twp felt compelled to make it 30 seconds for the best ineerest, safety and aesthetics of the township."
Another billboard owner, Joe Felice, vice president of Keystone Outdoor Ad Company, said he had some technical concerns of the ordinance. Felice's company owns two billboards along 309 in the township.
"The limitations are quite strict, and I don’t agree with them, but I understand them," he said.
Felice's major problem was the limitation on the pixel size on the digital billboards at 12 millimeters.
He said a smaller size results in a higher cost for a billboard.
"That’s unheard of in the outdoor industry. (Twelve milimeter pixels) are for walk up digital signs, like in a casino. It's such a close pitch, its like a TV set. There's no reason for 12 millimeter for outdoor advertising."
He said most digital billboards are 19 or 20 millimeters.
"I know we're not supposed to talk about financial things, but a 12 millimeter 14-by-48 billboard is $485,000 for one. A 19 or 20 millimeter 14-by-48 is $180,000. It's a tremendous cost. I think that was thrown in to discourage people from putting them up," Felice said.
Walsh asked what the difference is between 12 millimeter and 20 millimeter pixel pitch. Felice said it comes down to the clarity of the image.
Rieker explained that the limitations were the township's way of being conservative.
"We wanted to be sure we didn’t have the dots. We didn’t want to go through this trouble and end up with an operator that wasn’t quite as concerned as the two we have in township and end up with an image that was more of distraction than being static," he said.
Supervisors were concerned that billboard owners would pick apart the ordinance, and opted to get the changes on the books, with the understanding that amendments can happen in the future.