Around the U.S., local governments are taking a closer look at regulating billboards. In Foxboro, Mass., townspeople may vote Nov. 17 on newly revised regulations covering electronic and digital billboards. Voters may also decide at that time whether more digital billboards will be permitted along Route 1. Currently, there is one digital billboard on Route 1 in Foxboro, near North Street. It was installed with state approval several years ago as an experiment.

Across the U.S., in Tacoma, Wash., a  community group is drafting new rules for billboards in the city. The group, comprised of more that 20 citizens, could suggest changes to the city code. Members of the working group include representatives from community, business, neighborhood, non-profit and advertising sectors – including billboard companies and those working to preserve historic places and scenic views.

The Tacoma group may try to cut the total number of billboards in residential areas and historic districts. The city’s Planning Commission, and then the Tacoma City Council would need to eventually approve the billboard group’s proposals. The working group came about during a legal skirmish between Clear Channel Outdoor and the city of Tacoma. The council passed an ordinance that aimed to eliminate billboards in the city within 10 years in 1997. Just prior to the 2007 deadline, billboard operator Clear Channel sued the city, arguing the constitutionality of the legislation.

The city council, in an effort to halt litigation, made a deal with Clear Channel that covered the removal of 85 percent of billboards on Tacoma highways. As part of the bargain, billboard operators could install several digital billboards on main roads. But citizen protests bubbled over and caused the city council to decline the settlement. Instead, city council banned digital billboards and required the demolition of nonconforming signs.

Billboard operators are facing an uphill battle. Four states — Vermont, Hawaii, Alaska and Maine — have banned them outright. In Rhode Island and Oregon, regulators have decided that no new billboards will be built.

In Texas, 388 cities — including most large and medium-size cities — have ordinances prohibiting new billboards. Also in the Lone Star State, the Texas Department of Transportation has decided against a proposal that would have let billboard operators raise signs to the height of a six-story building.  The state agency made its decision after receiving 900 public comments — all of them opposing the rule change that would have permitted heightened signs.

But billboards can help businesses stay afloat. "Billboards inform the public of where businesses (and entire towns) are in relation to the interstate highway system, (which bypasses most every town in America)," says Frank Rolfe, who is with Outdoorbillboarduniversity.com, which teaches about the industry. Prior to that, Rolfe was the largest private owner of billboards in Dallas/Ft. Worth, and sold out to what is now Clear Channel in 1996.

"In some cases," Rolfe told GPN, "Billboards result in nearly 100 percent of their tourism dollars. In addition, billboards help promote local economies, which creates jobs and sales tax revenues. Finally, they are a service to the driving public, making them aware of food, lodging, attractions and services."

Billboards play a role in public safety, also. In Janesville, Wis., fugitives on the run now have their mug shots prominently featured on billboards, thanks to a partnership between police and billboard operators. "Calls to Crime Stoppers have almost tripled, and a lot of those calls we're getting are just related to people that are on those billboards,” says Chad Sullivan, crime prevention officer, Janesville Police Department. “The fact that ten out of 12 figitives (featured on billboards) have been captured speaks for itself," he adds.

In Texas, billboards are going up across the state in a move aimed to stop human trafficking. Clear Channel Outdoor is teaming up with the FBI and state leaders in the effort. A total of 15 Texas cities, including Corpus Christi, will have signs that outline the dimensions of human trafficking and a toll-free number for the public to alert authorities.

In the video, view some examples of innovative outdoor advertising, including billboards.

What do you think? Do we need more billboard regulations in the U.S.? Express your views in the comment box below.

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