By Liz Ellaby
On March 4, Homewood joined the ranks of Over the Mountain communities to be blindsided by the siting of a digital billboard near a residential neighborhood.
Just 10 days later, Homewood broke ranks when billboard owner New Point Outdoor agreed to relocate the sign — and in record time.
The 48-foot, double sign board that came out of the ground at the Lakeshore BP station was lawfully permitted on unincorporated county land owned by Circle K, Inc.
New Point’s owner, David DuBose of Vestavia Hills, leased the ground and worked since October to complete a permitting deal that was flawed but likely to withstand a legal challenge.
Except it didn’t come to that.
Homewood’s reaction was swift and effective. In a meeting March 12 with the mayors of Homewood and Vestavia and Jefferson County Commissioner David Carrington, DuBose agreed to move the sign to another location that meets his business needs without impacting a neighborhood.
In the following days Homewood has been working to site the board within its own city limits, after quickly rewriting a portion of its sign ordinance to more strictly regulate billboards and abolish pole signs. That location will likely be announced this week [of March 22] after the council rules on the amendments, scheduled for a second reading March 23. Meanwhile, through July 31, the County Commission must have prior review of any digital billboard application in its own territory, pending more far reaching reforms, said county Manager Tony Petelos.
“Our sign ordinance is decades old and was written before there were digital billboards,” Petelos said last week. The staff is going to be looking at all the different municipalities’ zoning first and there are several changes we’ll be considering.”
Expressing optimism but reserving comment on the timeline how his costs would be paid, DuBose said he was hopeful for a resolution.
“Honestly, I can’t set out there 60 days, 90 days without turning it on,” he said. “That would be devastating to my business. I do know we all walked out of that meeting agreeing to work together, and we’ve looked at several sites already.”
Fighting digital with digital
Sign disputes aren’t new to Over the Mountain suburbs.
In 2006, Ashley Furniture Homestore shocked Hoover’s buttoned-down Riverchase district by putting up an animated display board from its perch on unincorporated county soil. Hoover leaders tried and failed with a favorable annexation offer to get the sign removed.
The sign still stands overlooking Galleria Boulevard.
The same year in Vestavia Hills, residents reacted when Lamar Advertising put up a digital billboard on Rocky Ridge Road. Caught off guard by the new technology, the city tried to regulate the display, prompting a lawsuit by Lamar that was settled 18 months later by relocating the sign.
On the surface, Homewood’s reaction seemed to follow the same course.
Taken by surprise on March 4, a modest number of residents picketed the corner gas station with homemade placards and signs. Back home on their digital devices, however, they ferreted out the details of DuBose’s personal life, his business practices and most importantly, his advertisers, pressuring them with threats of boycotts in torrents of emails, texts and tweets.
Within days, DuBose said he had lost all four six-month ad contracts signed on the Lakeshore board. He lost another three on his Alabama 119 sign.
The social media campaign was largely directed by the Facebook page Citizens Against New Point Outdoor’s Electronic Billboard.
The page was put together March 6 by Homewood resident and stay-at-home mom Jennifer Andress with six other administrators, including Homewood council member Heather Reid. Scott Dean, a Homewood resident whose family room window faces the billboard, said he and a core group strategized continuously on Facebook’s Messenger app. On Facebook, they kept hundreds of others engaged through daily “call-to-action” posts that were also buzzed out to mobile phones with links to advertisers, state legislators and city officials, he said.
In a critical turning point, Levy’s Fine Jewelry withdrew its ad with a public announcement that logged 4,500 views on the protester’s Facebook page. DuBose’s March 10 TV news announcement to relocate the sign reached 7,700.
The site has maintained its value even after the protests as a source of progress reports sent from the mayor’s office. “There is absolutely no chance we could have accomplished this without Facebook,” Dean said.
Government regulations have lagged behind the technology, however. Mountain Brook is the only Over the Mountain city that outlaws off-premise billboards or any flashing sign and strictly limits the size of even on-premise signs, said city planner Dana Hazen.
Even so, it has no control over regulations in neighboring Jefferson County.
Vestavia’s Deloye Burrell, a Planning and Zoning Commission member, said regulations on the books in 2006 didn’t even have a definition for digital signs. In Burrell’s opinion, that lapse allowed Lamar to get away with providing misleading information on the permit application.
Once the billboard was up, Burrell said, “We were greeted with this brilliant light that was flashing. We tried to regulate the frequency of the light flashes, but residents wanted us to tie something to it and pull it down.”
Lamar answered with a lawsuit, settled in 2008 by relocating the sign to a more commercial spot on Tyler Road near the interstate. Vestavia Hills in 2010 revised its sign ordinance to mitigate the impact of billboards without eliminating them entirely, Burrell said.
Similar lags are evident at the county level. Jefferson County operates a decades-old “amortization” program to cap the number of billboards allowed in the county. For every billboard going up, an equal number of square feet must come down, creating a marketplace of billboard credits.
But the ordinance hasn’t been updated in years, said Michael Morrison, a county planner who handled the DuBose sign.
“It doesn’t distinguish between traditional and digital billboards,” he said.
Morrison said DuBose owned billboard credits from three boards taken down near the Birmingham racetrack and the Tuscaloosa county line. He wanted to put up a three-sided sign but only had enough credits for two. Morrison, concerned about the proximity to Homewood, also asked for a survey to confirm that the distance to nearby residences was the required 300 feet.
Homewood City Councilman Fred Hawkins, an engineer with political contacts across the metro area, has asked the county to increase that distance to 1,000 feet and to honor stricter zoning regulations of neighboring cities along its boundaries.
Hawkins also said the Alabama Department of Transportation may have erred in not reviewing the New Point billboard. Lakeshore Drive was added to the National Highway System, and therefore ALDOT’s jurisdiction, in 2012.
“I do think a public process would have helped,” he said of the sign dispute. “But the sign being so large and so close to the residential area and being right on our pedestrian corridor (Shades Valley Greenway) really caused the anger.”
Lamar Advertising, which dominates the local outdoor ad industry and owns virtually all the county billboard credits, says each billboard should be considered in context with its surroundings.
Tom Traylor, Lamar’s general manager and president of the Outdoor Advertising Association, said he’s rejected two sign locations on that test, one of them at the Circle K corner on Lakeshore Drive.
“It was evident that to make the revenue work with the Circle K lease, it would have to be a big unit,” he said. “Also, we were looking at doing a monument sign, lower and smaller.”
In the future, DuBose said he would apply a similar test before siting a digital billboard.
“We did everything we were supposed to do,” he said. “Residents were very upset because they weren’t informed. But there was no public hearing required. The property was properly zoned to allow the billboard.”