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Billboards or ‘signs’?

Residents decry new regs as unacceptable

(Published February 26, 2001)


Staff Writer

Government officials are caught in a whirlwind of neighborhood anger after recently revising the District’s regulations on outdoor advertising to accommodate new billboards, euphemistically called "special signs," in many of the city’s residential areas and downtown.

D.C. City Council has temporarily blocked the erection of 19 such signs for which permits have already been issued by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. City leaders are trying to sort out why no public comment was received during the statutorily required comment period, but now there is a firestorm of heated emotions being directed at the DCRA by council members, advisory neighborhood commissioners, community associations and beautification activists.

"Despite the fact that the special sign ordinance says that these huge wall signs are not billboards they are indeed billboards and therefore illegal," said Tom Pelikan, director of policy for Scenic America, a conservationist group that helps communities fight billboard blight.

"This ordinance is a blatant circumvention and weakening of the District of Columbia’s prohibition of new billboard construction. It is bad for the scenic beauty of the District, it will be bad for the District’s reputation and eventually, bad for the District’s economy," he said.

The District has a long tradition of banning billboard advertising – even pre-dating Lady Bird Johnson’s nationwide beautification campaign as First Lady in the 1960s that eventually tied federal highway funding to the elimination of new billboards. Some critics of the District’s new "special signs" regulations have expressed concern that the city’s share of federal highway funding may be jeopardized if the federal government considers these signs to be new billboards.

Traditional billboards in the District may not have an advertising area larger than 300 square feet, but the size of the 19 "special signs" that already have received permits ranges from 300 square feet for a proposed U.S. Capitol sign at 1003 Eighth St. SE to 10,850 square feet for a proposed National Gallery of Art sign at 635 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Eighteen of the signs would exceed 300 square feet.

Eleven of the 19 signs that are "on hold" would be erected in Ward 2, four in Ward 5, and two each in Ward 1 and Ward 6. The approved artwork for the signs includes ads for Ford, Nokia and Gap as well as the nonprofit D.C. Central Kitchen, the National Gallery of Art and national monuments. Three billboard companies – Thaxton Management, Van Wagner and CO Media LLC – applied for the 19 permits.

Adams Morgan Community Association is one of many groups that vehemently objects to the proposed installation of "special signs." Both signs slated for Ward 1 would be located in that neighborhood – a 4,640-square-foot one at 1787 Columbia Road NW advertising Ford and a 450-square-foot sign at 2007 18th St. NW advertising Nokia.

Association vice president Sharon Dondero, in recent testimony at a hearing before Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose’s Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said her primary concern is an advertiser’s right to exercise the First Amendment. Once the city has approved the erection of a sign, there can be no control over the content of that sign, she noted.

"The decoration of suitable exterior building walls in Adams Morgan should focus primarily on murals and other public artworks that celebrate or commemorate our local history, culture, organizations, landmarks, personalities or groups – with the input of the community – rather than paid or rotating advertising arranged by the outdoor advertising industry or similar special interest groups," she said.

"It is simply unacceptable that a community so diverse as Adams Morgan is subject to advertising that promotes tobacco, alcohol and other products that tear at the fabric of our community," she said.

Michael A. Gould, president of the Kalorama Citizens Association, complained in testimony at Ambrose’s Feb. 5 hearing that the mayor did not make the public aware of the new regulations.

"DCRA’s conduct in enacting and then in applying them at best shows an arrogant insensitivity to the interests of D.C. citizens affected by the regulations, and at worse a certain deviousness exercised to the detriment of those citizens and to the benefit of the advertising industry," Gould said.

A comparison of the new regulations to older regulations governing billboards shows that:

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator