Indianapolis neighborhood groups in uproar over digital billboard proposal

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A proposal to lift a decade-old ban on new and digital billboards has outraged neighborhood groups across the city who say it's being rammed through by City-County councilors and outdoor advertisers.

Michael McKillip heads Midtown Indianapolis, which represents several Indianapolis north side neighborhoods including Mapleton-Fall Creek, Broad Ripple and Meridian-Kessler.

"We're upset the public input process has been shirked. While folks are eating turkey dinners these people are trying to stuff digital billboards into historic neighborhoods," he said.

Last week, a City-County Council committee passed an ordinance on a 5-2 vote, which is set to go to the full council Monday, December 1st.  The proposal was written by lobbyists representing Lamar Companies and Outdoor Media LLC.

It would allow static digital billboards where traditional "paper" ones already exist, but on a two-to-one conversion, meaning the company could convert one billboard, but would have to take another one down.

Digital billboards have become a popular and lucrative way to advertise because they can display new advertisements every so many seconds. They're becoming increasingly common, especially along interstate highways.

McKillip and other opponents object because of safety and "visual blight" concerns.

"Are we really safer with intersections like this at 54th and College to have blinking lights that change every 15 seconds to display a different message?" he said.

Marjorie Kienle, president of Historic Urban Neighborhoods of Indianapolis (HUNI), said, "the static billboards you can drive by and tune out. You can't tune out the digital billboards...they're very bright. They hold your gaze much longer."

Like McKillip, Kienle believes the proposal hasn't been properly vetted.

"The billboard companies say they've been working on this for years, but they've been meeting with City-County councilors behind closed doors," she said. "We asked if we could have a meeting with them after Thanksgiving, but they want to push it thru Thanksgiving. They think people aren't paying attention."

Democratic Councilor Joe Simpson agrees.

He said he's been working on a billboard proposal with Republican councilor Aaron Freeman and Clear Channel, which has yet to be introduced.

"This proposal jumped over our proposal. It came out of nowhere. I think they were just wrong the way they presented it," Simpson said, noting he's been inundated with calls and emails from opponents.

"It's poison for me right now," he said. "In my community they're livid."

Simpson said he's urging fellow councilors to vote against the proposal Monday and send it back to the drawing board.

The billboard companies are also now asking for a delay.

Trenton Hahn with Bose Public Affairs represents Lamar Companies and Outfront Media LLC. In an email Hahn wrote that they've requested the council vote be postponed or referred back to the council committee "so that we may have additional time to meet with representatives of neighborhood groups to address any concerns they may have."

Hahn also dismissed safety concerns saying in 2014, the "Federal Highway Administration issued a report indicating there is no evidence that digital billboards are distracting."

And he said, the ordinance allows companies "to convert an extremely small percentage of existing inventory into digital signs, and in exchange the companies must remove an additional sign at another location."

While Hahn said while there were "multiple stops along the way for public comment," McKillip and Kienle who keep close watch on neighborhood issues, disagree.

"We actually reviewed this thing two-to-three months ago, before it was an actual proposal and gave feedback to our councilors telling them it was a horrible idea," McKillip said. "And somehow it magically passes out of committee with no notice or consideration? So now folks understand what no input from neighbors feels like."