July 19th, 2007

Banned Highway Billboards Still Lit

By Tom Demeropolis
Cincinnati Post

Electronic billboards reach thousands of tri-state drivers with lit-up advertisements every eight seconds.

And even though the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has said they are illegal, four signs in Northern Kentucky keep on lighting up.

“From our standpoint, they are not in compliance,” said Doug Hogan, director of public affairs for the transportation cabinet. “We told them, take them down, turn them off until they can be reverted back to permitted configurations.”

The electronic billboards in question are on Interstate 71/75 in Covington and I-471 in Newport. Three of the signs are owned by Lamar Outdoor Advertising. The other, near the 600 block of Pike Street in Covington, is owned by Lewisburg Enterprises. They are illegal along highways in Kentucky, but not Ohio, because they are considered too much of a distraction to drivers.

Local governments also are trying to figure out how to handle the illegal signs. Frank Warnock, Covington’s city solicitor, said the city’s code enforcement board held a five-hour meeting last week to determine what to do with Lamar’s electronic billboard.

The code enforcement board regulates the city’s nuisance codes and zoning violations.

Warnock said Lamar brought in a team of lawyers, the company’s vice president and a witness to contest that the sign is not in any violation. The board decided it needed time to read through the information presented and come to a decision.

“Next Wednesday night they should render a decision,” Warnock said.

Tom Fahey, vice president and general manager for Lamar in Cincinnati, said the company is working with the state of Kentucky on language that would clarify the law. He said the state is reviewing its regulations and considering updates to its codes to allow the LED billboards.

Warnock said many issues come into play on whether or not the signs should stay up.

“It’s balancing commercial speech with local government’s right to control signage,” he said. “Constitutional issues come into play, nuisance laws come into play.”

Along with Lamar, Covington’s Code Enforcement Board sent Lewisburg a notice of violation for its electronic sign that went up in May. Warnock said a hearing has not been set up for that sign, but he expects it to come up at Wednesday’s meeting.

Ohio allows the electronic billboards, but requires screen changes no quicker than every eight seconds, fade-in and fade-out, rather than jarring changes, and prohibits blinking light or scrolling text.

Hogan and Warnock said the signs present a safety issue.

“It’s a safety issue as well as a regulatory enforcement-type issue,” Hogan said.

“The signs are very bright, eye-catching and a lot of people don’t like them,” Warnock said.

Lamar and other outdoor advertisers including Cincinnati-based Norton Outdoor Advertising, have been trying to get Kentucky and other states to make the signs legal.

“To change the law, they would need to make it a legislative issue,” Hogan said.

The regulations come from the legislative research commission or the general assembly. To change the regulations, it would have to come from one of those bodies.

There is no timeline for changing the current regulations, and Hogan said it would not be easy.

“It’s an involved process,” he said.

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