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Mayor, Council Expect to Wrestle With New Rules to Regulate Controversial Digital Signs

Accompanying images can be viewed in the Febuary 2017 issue pdf

Accompanying images can be viewed in the Febuary 2017 issue pdf

By Larry Hargrove*

The outdoor advertising industry is collectively one of the country’s better-heeled and most litigious and persistent lobbies. It is now on a mission of transformation in the Nation’s Capital: to make the city safe for digital billboards by relaxing the District’s sign law. Its effort responds to the emergence of an extremely lucrative new outdoor advertising technology.

Many times more optically intrusive and attention-grabbing than static, old conventional wooden billboards and capable of delivering multiple eyeball-capturing messages over the span of a single minute, the response of large number of cities and several states has been to ban this technology altogether.

The industry has recently scored some successes, but also suffered a setback or two, in several arenas. One of these was the DC Council, in which a bill emerged last fall to authorize installing 10 digital billboards on the Nationals Park stadium in Southwest and its parking garages. The bill drew strong opposition from the local ANC and the public well beyond the stadium’s neighborhood, but had been sold to Council members as a gesture of support for the Nats and readily picked up a substantial number of sponsors or signers-on.

This “support,” according to opponents, would go to the team owners, who, having a structure that could do double duty as a billboard rack, saw an opportunity to go into electronic outdoor advertising as a lucrative second line of business — the revenues of which they might or might not choose to devote to improving the team.

Within hours of the public hearing on this bill, however, it was abandoned without explanation and replaced by a bill to allow an unlimited number of stadium signs, to designate the block north of the stadium as a digital billboard zone, and to create a system by which new digital billboard areas could be designated across the city, in any neighborhood, simply through a “rulemaking” by the Mayor.

By the time the bill was finally adopted, without any hearing, this maneuver turned out to have been something of an overreach by the industry: The bill did set aside the block north of the stadium as a very permissively regulated digital billboard area, apparently as a favor to a couple of building owners who had turned up at the earlier hearing asking for a share of the legislative largesse. But the number of stadium signs had been pared back to a maximum of five (which still await review by the Zoning Commission).

Perhaps more importantly, the Mayor’s power to create new digital billboard areas had been replaced by a requirement that any such action be done by Council legislation, thereby — presumably — ensuring full notice to and participation by the public.

This last point matters because District law still prohibits any new billboards — a rule dating to the 1930s, adopted as a special protective measure for the capital city. Making even the geographically limited exceptions to that rule to accommodate digital signs at Gallery Place, Verizon Center and now the ballpark, has required cumbersome special legislative action. Consequently, for several years digital billboard proponents have sought a standing exception to the billboard ban, so that new digital sign zones around the city could be routinely designated by the Mayor and individual signs authorized just be applying for a permit. They persuaded two successive mayors to include such a scheme in two proposals for overhaul of the District’s sign regulations put forward in 2012 and again in 2015, both of which encountered strong opposition and were withdrawn.

Meanwhile, last year, one digital billboard company, Digi Media Outdoors, was not waiting around for any help from new laws or regulations. Invoking a long-standing regulation providing that electric signs erected inside a building not less than 18 inches from a window are not required to have a permit, it proceeded to seek permits to install “interior” sign-hanging brackets on buildings at locations around the city, installed the brackets and began hanging LED billboard panels on them.

The problem, however, was that it had installed most of those brackets on outside walls, although walls that were under an overhang, perhaps counting on consumer and regulatory affairs department inspectors not to notice. But the inspectors did notice and posted stop-work orders. When Digi Media did not comply, Attorney General Carl Racine then sued in Superior Court to enforce the orders, obtaining a preliminary injunction.

At this point Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans introduced “emergency” legislation to rescue Digi Media by validating all of its signs for which bracket permits had been obtained or applied for or signs installed. (Some will remember a similar, successful rescue 15 years ago by Councilmember Evans for the huge vinyl wall signs that are now permanently ensconced downtown.)

But the Digi Media rescue was too much even for the recently digital billboard-tolerant Council, and the bill failed. (The “signs within buildings” rule has now been amended to make clear that any interior sign intended for outside viewing has to have a permit.)

A third draft of a proposed comprehensive revision of the sign regulations is now due from the executive branch. It remains to be seen to what extent this draft, like its two predecessors, will incorporate key items from the industry’s wish list for proliferating digital billboards throughout the District.

*The writer, a long-time resident of Adams Morgan, is a well-known and highly regarded community activist and participant in organizations monitoring and offering expertise on city-wide matters of policy and implementation.

[Note:  On December 20, 2018 the Washington Post published a detailed report, “D.C. Council member Jack Evans received stock just before pushing legislation that would benefit company,” which, in retrospect, is relevant to Larry Hargrove’s of February 2017 published here.]

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