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Prospect of Electronic Billboards Spreading to Neighborhoods Galvanizing Opponents

Accompanying images can be viewed in the March 2017 issue pdf

 By P.L. Wolff

Since last month when we published a news report on efforts by the outdoor advertising industry to have the City Council enant legislation to allow for a proliferation of digital billboards well beyond the Nationals stadium and Verizon Center, citizen opposition has been growing in intensity.

While nothing like Times Square would be the end result, mini-iterations springing up are feared.

The legislation already approved by the Council allows the Mayor to designate areas throughout the District where digital billboards would be allowed, but subject  to the Council enacting legislation specifically approving — presumably following notice and public hearing.

What seems to have triggered the recent, growing citizen awareness of the digital billboards issue is the related controversy involving Digi Media Outdoors that has already taken steps to mount electronic signage on the exterior of buildings — including one on Thomas Circle — in contravention of the present regulations that only allow for electronic signs to be mounted inside and no more than 18 inches back from windows.

 The company has intensely lobbied the Mayor to issue an “emergency” order to overrule this restriction, but now, seemingly as a result of that prospect suddenly receiving major negative publicity, The InTowner has received word (though unconfirmed at time of publication) that for the time being the Mayor has decided not to intervene but to await the outcome of a DC Superior Court ruling temporarily enjoining Digi Media from activating the exterior signs that they were in the process of installing.

Her decision might well have been influenced by the objections of DC Attorney General Karl Racine, according to a March 3rd tweet from NBC4-TV reporter Tom Sherwood that read, “Outdoor video billboards? On WAMU Politics Hour, AttyGen Racine says possible Bowser Exec Order could damage winning lawsuit against them.”

Among the sources of recent community pushback on the possibility of her mounting a Digi rMedia rescue was the March 6th resolution enacted by the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (DCCA) in opposition to any plan to allow for proliferation of electronic billboards; this action was communicated directly to the Mayor the next day at a public event by DCCA’s president, Robin Diener and board member Barry Kara.

Another example of pushback is the February 25th letter to Mayor Bowser sent by the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA):

“We have read that you are being lobbied by representatives of Digi Media Communications to legalize the digital billboards that the company unlawfully installed in the District, and that are now under temporary injunction from the DC Superior Court. We urge you to firmly reject any such entreaty and any considerations that may accompany it, and to reaffirm your opposition to the proliferation of digital and other high-tech outdoor advertising technology in the nation’s capital.

“We cannot think of a public act by the Mayor that would have a clearer combination of egregious consequences than undercutting our law enforcement authorities and bailing out this company.

“Digi came into our city in full knowledge of its sign law, which prohibits new billboards; misrepresented the nature of its project to your Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in applying for permits for the sign-hanging brackets; then proceeded to install the hardware and digital billboards themselves with no valid permit for either. It gambled that DCRA and the District’s law enforcement officials would acquiesce:  it gambled, and lost.  For the Mayor now to take up Councilmember Evans’ failed cause as apologist for this reprehensible conduct would say to the billboard industry and other corporate interests, that DC can be had – that disregard for our law is no big deal because you can always find a high official to come to the rescue, despite what our law enforcement authorities might say or do.

“Mayoral sanction of this sort of corporate conduct would be wrong even if the company were in a business that ultimately offered some redeeming public benefit to the District – say, in healthcare or education or affordable housing. But it would be doubly wrong in the case of a company whose sole objective for the District is to overlay its vistas and streetscapes with a “spectacular network” of highly intrusive digital billboards.

“For you as Mayor, digital sign technology may become a “legacy issue”. For, once the digital billboards are up, the odds against a later generation of District leaders being able to take them down, in the face of a deep-pocketed and litigious billboard industry, are slim.  That’s one reason that many cities around the country have simply said “no” to technology that is so corrosive of the aesthetic values and quality of life of urban neighborhoods. We urge you to lead the capital city in taking the same stand.”

The letter was signed by the following KCA officers: Denis James, President; Bob Ellsworth; Vice President; Bonnie Rowan, Secretary; Michael Colonna, Treasurer; Jean Stewart, Delegate to DC Federation of  Citizens Associations; and Larry Hargrove, Delegate to DC Federation of Civic Associations.

[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 ours of March 2017 published here.]