Courier-Journal By Martha Elson November 18, 2016
Louisville, KY-In a sign of the times, electronic message signs and billboards with changing texts and graphics have become a popular way to advertise everything from church and school events to fast food restaurants and the weather.
When St. Matthews recently got a sign company’s request to erect an electronic message billboard along Sherburn Lane that would be visible from I-264 behind Mall St. Matthews, city sign officer Jack Ruf and attorney John Singler discovered the City Council didn’t have any clear guildelines to help make a decision.
As it turned out, the company withdrew the request after deciding the site wasn’t viable for what it had in mind, Ruf said. But Tuesday the council is expected to temporarily ban billboards, at least until the end of the year, to give the city time to draft a policy on electronic billboards. The council will meet at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 3940 Grandview Ave.
Changing-message signs have been criticized as distractions for drivers. Among factors to consider would be the sign’s brightness in the daytime versus nighttime, how long a message would stay up and how close the sign could be to residents or businesses.
It’s a new “medium that was not anticipated” in the sign code, Ruf said. While it’s been updated in some ways in recent years, and much smaller electronic message signs are allowed, “It’s not that much different from what we’ve had for decades,” he said.
By St. Matthews’ definition, a billboard is a large “off-premise” sign of about 642 square feet (or roughly 25’x25′) that’s not on the premises of a business or other entity it’s advertising, Ruf said. Large “on-premise” signs are simply considered signs, he said.
A cross between the two is illustrated by an electronic billboard put up in 2010 on state property at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center put up by OUTFRONT Media that can be seen from I-65. It has a smaller message board on top that advertises events at the fairgrounds and a larger one below that is rented out for advertising to other businesses — such as McDonald’s recently.
The use and placement of such billboards are “highly regulated by the state, but the state fair board does have a permit for that sign,” exposition spokeswoman Amanda Storment said.
But they are “permitted in certain areas if standards are met,” said Naitore Djigbenou, a deputy public relations director for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, in an email. Electronic billboards also must be compliant with local ordinances or regulations and are prohibited in certain circumstances. Under Kentucky law, “an electronic advertising device visible from the main traveled way on an interstate, parkway, national highway system or federal-aid primary highway shall be prohibitied in a protected area unless the device is located in an urban” or urbanized area.
The Louisville Land Development Code does not describe changing message signs specifically but allows both illuminated and non-illuminated “Off-premise Signage (Outdoor Advertising Signs” with restrictions related to size, setbacks, zoning districts, proximity to other billboards and other factors. Outdoor advertising signs greater than 750 square feet are not allowed in any district, and a note says that outdoor advertising signs are prohibited in the city of Middletown.
“Digital is the way to go,” said Lester LeMaster with Commonwealth Sign Co. on Berry Boulevard in Louisville. His company does only on-premise signs, including a new, large, electronic message one at Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Ky., south of Bowling Green that’s pictured on the company’s website.
Some people think they’re “tacky and ugly,” LeMaster said. But he cites a study that says that ones with an 8-second hold time are no more distracting than other traditional signs and says distractions are different for different people.
But the big digital signs are expensive — $400,000 for the one at Kentucky Downs, for instance — and getting a financial return may take several years, he said. “They’re a huge investment.”
Much smaller electronic message signs — also called outdoor LED signs — have been allowed for a number of years in St. Matthews and have become common at churches and schools — including Trinity High on Shelbyville Road, St. Matthews Elementary on Brownsboro Lane and Beargrass Christian Church at Brownsboro and Shelbyville — and other sites.
The smaller signs were somewhat controversial at first, with questions raised about whether they would distract drivers or annoy neighbors. St. Matthews Elementary was required in 2009 to modify its new “light-emitting” sign that was donated to the school by an orthodontics practice so that it no longer flashed or scrolled, and the message changed only once a day. A resident across the street had complained that it “totally disrupts the serenity of the neighborhood,” calling it “garish.”
In 2010, Hurstbourne passed a “Changing Image Signs” ordinance prohibiting “any sign using a video or light emitting device display method, which changes its message or background by means of electrical, kinetic, solar or mechanical energy.” Static messages produced by the same means also were not allowed.
The city acted after Hurstbourne Christian Church on Nottingham Parkway put up an electronic message sign. The church was allowed to keep the sign, but its message could change only every 20 seconds.