Billboards are made to be seen. But some outdoor advertisers might not be happy with the Memphis City Council setting its sights on the signs.
The City Council is currently reviewing its billboard and sign ordinance, especially as it relates to
electronic signs. In a recent report to the council, consultant Eric Kelly said that it was "absolutely essential" that a new sign ordinance address full-motion electronic billboards.
"They may say full-motion videos are allowable anyplace in the city, but you need to decide because otherwise it's going to turn up randomly," Kelly said. "One might go in front of an apartment complex and keep people up all night. They'll be asking, how did this happen?"
Already in Memphis, several electronic billboards have been erected, with at least one full motion sign — depicting the spinning reels of a winning slot machine — off Bill Morris Parkway.
"There are a number of things to be alarmed about in my opinion," said council chair Tom Marshall at a recent committee meeting. "I don't think it's appropriate to watch video while you're driving down the street."
More than likely, some electronic signage will be allowed, but the council could choose to limit the size, brightness, and locations of the billboards. Marshall indicated that he felt there is a place for some electronic signage.
"I was outraged at first," he said. "Then I thought, this looks better than what was there."
Electronic signs with changeable copy — the type consumers might see advertising paper towels at area Walgreens — are considered safer and more attractive than their traditional counterparts, which require an employee to change the sign by hand.
"That may, however, open the door to scrolling and other rapidly changing signs," Kelly's study noted.
Currently, the ordinance doesn't address motion on signage. "All the ordinance says now is that signs can't flash," Kelly said. "Whether this applies to video, it's not clear."
Full-motion billboards might have a place in Memphis the same way they are used in Times Square or the Vegas strip. "Personally, I'd love to see 12 of these signs on Beale Street," Kelly said. "They build excitement and vitality in an area."
The billboard report also suggested that the City Council review its rules on political signs and real estate signs, especially those erected off-premises by developers.
Currently, political signs cannot be put up more than 90 days before an election and cannot be placed on utility poles or in public rights-of-way. However, time limits for political signage have been deemed unconstitutional. The ordinance does not allow for political signage not related to an election, such as signs supporting a living wage or the war in Iraq.
"People ought to be able to express their opinions," Kelly said. "I don't think either the city or the county is enforcing it, but it's weird to have an ordinance on the books you're not enforcing."
Legal issues could also arise with real estate signs that direct drivers to new housing developments. Typically, non-commercial signs have more freedom than commercial signs.
"Once you allow commercial signs in the rights-of-way, you have to allow noncommercial signs in the rights-of-way," Kelly said. "It's going to be some weird group that tests the ordinance."
In Missouri, that group was the Ku Klux Klan. Though the state attempted to bar the KKK from participating in its "adopt a highway" program and erecting a related sign, the court rejected the effort as unconstitutional.
Traditionally, the council has taken a strong position on signage, only allowing new billboards to be erected along interstates and highways. Smaller signs on utility poles and in medians are also not allowed. Existing billboards on city streets have been grandfathered in under the ordinance, but if they fall down, they are not allowed to be rebuilt. And the council hasn't determined yet if those existing signs can be converted to electronic billboards.
But Memphis isn't the only city struggling with its sign ordinance.
Kelly is probably more known to Memphians as the consultant who gave the City Council the dirty details on area strip clubs in a $38,000 study.
"When you look at sex businesses in Memphis, it's worse here than in other places," he said. "But with signage, Memphis is in the same boat as everybody else."