Since 2005 a new kind of billboard has risen along highways in and around Cleveland: digital panels that are like TV sets the size of drive-in movie screens that only play commercials. Mounted high, the mercenary Jumbotrons dominate the landscape with a different message every eight seconds.
Each time a digital billboard has been installed in the city, the Board of Zoning Appeals has used a line of Cleveland law to clean up the landscape just a little bit. In exchange for putting up the billboards, Clear Channel - which owns all the digital panels here and dominates the outdoor advertising industry - has taken down "two or more" of the old-style vinyl billboards.
Tim Donovan, executive director of Ohio Canal Corridor, sees billboards as "blight, disinvestment and an obstacle to future investment." They blot out natural beauty along miles of lake and river shoreline. Using the new digital billboards as bartering chips is the only way he sees that the city can ever clean up those thoroughfares. No one believes Cleveland will ever be billboard-free, like Vermont, Maine, Alaska and Hawaii, which ban the giant signs, or even like the many Cleveland suburbs that strictly regulate them. But the idea of a trade-off gives hope that some of the city's neighborhoods could be slightly less cluttered.
That wouldn't be in Clear Channel's interest, however, and it wants to slow the cleanup way down. The company seems to have found support from city planner Bob Brown and Council President Martin Sweeney.
Clear Channel has approximately 1,000 billboards around Cleveland. Company vice president David Yale argues that the "two or more" clause dates from a bygone era, when "tri-panel" message boards with rotating vertical slats were the hottest thing. Since those "changeable copy" boards enabled the company to put three messages in place of one, the city saw an opportunity to clean up the clutter without hurting Clear Channel's bottom line.
The newest technology displays a message 7.5 times per minute, and so each time Clear Channel has applied to put up a digital billboard in Cleveland, BOZA has emphasized the "or more" part of the law, negotiating the removal of six billboards in some cases - and once, 11.
The "or more" clause played a critical role in two cases earlier this year, when Clear Channel wanted to put up digital billboards at 12510 Triskett Rd. (which faces I-90 near West 117th) and at 464 E. 105th, which faces I-90 not far from Martin Luther King Boulevard. At the hearing in June, BOZA resolved that to put up the first digital panel, the company would have to take down 11 static billboards, and in the case of the second, 12. The decisions were greeted by applause from residents and property owners. But Yale said that the deal was not economically viable and Clear Channel simply wouldn't "develop" digital billboards under those conditions - which meant no other neighborhood billboards would be removed.
Discussion was especially heated when a contingent from Ohio City, along with Ohio City Near West Development, sought the removal of four billboards near West 25th and Franklin.
The billboards are on a property owned by Maria Keckan and Neil McCormick, who want them gone. Clear Channel has refused to take them down, however, and has that right, according to an "agreement of perpetual lease," granted in 1990 when Patrick Media Group (now owned by Clear Channel) sold the property to the previous owners.
"All future owners forever are stuck with it," says Keckan. "The sad truth is that the city is stuck with it." DONOVAN NEGOTIATED DIRECTLY with Clear Channel over a digital billboard a few years ago, when the company wanted to put the new technology on I-77, along the Ohio & Erie Canalway's Scenic Byway. Clear Channel agreed to remove 11 billboards in five different community-development corporations' territories - including a 672-square-foot panel near the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.
"I think that was a precedent that showed me what you can get" if you negotiate, says Donovan.
Bobbi Reichtell, senior vice president for programs at Neighborhood Progress, Inc., cited that decision as precedent when she argued on behalf of removing 12 old billboards at the BOZA hearing.
"The last time they agreed to take down 11 billboards … it was because they knew their revenues would still far surpass what they were getting," she said, according to a transcript. "This [deal] really needs to be for 11 or at least follow the square footage of the last deal as a minimum … But the point is, the reason billboards are a nonconforming use is because they are blight."
During that hearing Yale denied that Clear Channel agreed to remove 11 panels, but Marlane Weslian, of Slavic Village Development Corporation, provided a copy of the legislation to prove Reichtell's claim. Now Clear Channel wants to put an end to that kind of negotiation. Yale denies that the company drafted new legislation, but admits asking planning director Bob Brown for specific language.
"We had gone to city planning and said this language is vague, subjective and we need to get some clarity here," Yale said in a phone interview. "The words 'or more' - the anti-billboardists took those and ran with it like crazy. So [Brown] drafted language that would clarify."
What Brown and the planning commission proposed is complicated by the fact that billboards come in different sizes. It's also geared toward the removal of smaller ones: The key provision is that a company that wants to put up a digital billboard must remove "at least six other billboard panels" and the total sign area taken down must be "at least twice the sign face area of the changeable copy or animated panel that is proposed for installation."
Council president Martin Sweeney proposed the legislation as an "emergency" measure in June and spoke on behalf of that version when the Planning Commission discussed and eventually tabled it August 1. Yale and Clear Channel Outdoor's Northeast Ohio regional president Bill Platko both have been contributors to Sweeney's re-election campaign. Yale has also donated to Sweeney's council leadership fund, as has Clear Channel's Political Action Committee. All of which has caused skepticism about his involvement in the legislation.
Clear Channel's PAC also gave $3,000 to Councilman Joe Cimperman's congressional campaign. Cimperman sits on the planning commission and, as Ward 13 councilman, helped arrange a meeting between Clear Channel and board members of Ohio City Near West, during which the billboard company urged the group not to oppose it at the BOZA hearing.
Alternative guidelines drafted by an ad hoc group of community members include a provision that echoes the logic of the original legislation. Rather than address the number of sign faces, they recommend that the standard be simple square footage. Since the digital billboards can display 7.5 different messages per minute, they say the trade should be to remove 7.5 times the square footage of the proposed digital panel. They also developed criteria for prioritizing billboards for removal, including those obstructing scenic byways, views of the city and historic districts. The planning commission will take up the issue in a public meeting at 9 a.m. Friday, September 5, in City Hall Room 514 and is likely to make a recommendation, which City Council would consider.
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