The Back Story: Billboards
Nobody likes billboards in their neighborhood. We’d all like to extinguish these blight-causing creatures in every corner of our city — particularly in our residential neighborhoods, where too many residents endure their daily sight. When I came into office in 2015, I inherited a city with many billboards constructed decades ago and quickly learned that the City lacks any legal authority to tear them down. The Just Compensation Clause of the Fifth Amendment requires that if the City wants to eliminate legal billboards, it must pay property owners and billboard companies — a lot of money — to do so. That magic pot of money doesn’t exist, so the City merely halted new billboard construction for decades. In the meantime, residents have endured decades of the same (often blighted) billboards.
We have another path, though: the City could tell advertising companies they have to tear down many old billboards for any new one that they erect. Such agreements could finally — for the first time in decades — reduce the aggregate number of billboards in our city, ridding our most blighted neighborhoods of them. Companies want to erect more lucrative LED signage — the kind that is often featured in the downtowns of major cities — which gives them an incentive to make this trade. Best of all, we can rid our residential neighborhoods of old, blighted billboards while we confine any new signs to the Downtown and at the Airport. By doing so on City property, we can also ensure that the public benefits directly from any advertising revenues to improve basic public services. So, that’s exactly what the Council agreed to do when it passed Council Policy 6–4 in a public hearing in 2019.
Tuesday night, the Council voted 9–2 to move forward with a proposal that would require Clear Channel to tear down 12 billboards in predominantly low-income neighborhoods, in exchange for the erection two larger digital freeway displays at our Airport, along 101. In addition to the teardown requirement, the public gets much more:
- According to our Airport Director, the deal will provide 55% of the signs’ advertising revenues directly to our Airport — or an estimated $4.5 million — to pay for critical Airport operations and to reduce fees.
- The company will also have to plant 215 new trees in tree-deprived neighborhoods — a 5:1 replacement ratio — and to pay to water and maintain the trees for three years, to compensate for the 43 trees they’ll tear down.
- Many other changes were made to address environmental concerns raised by an environmental impact report, including the requirement that the digital displays use 100% GHG-free electricity (by subscribing to a “Total Green” account with San Jose Clean Energy).
- While one news account raised concerns about privacy-invading technology that could track drivers, the Council required (and Clear Channel readily committed) that no sensors, cameras, or other devices could be associated with the billboards to track anyone.
In short, the agreement achieves a win-win for the community and our Airport. And yes, there were many objections from community members, most of whom were not aware of the beneficial aspects of this agreement. Critically though, we weren’t able to hear from one very important constituency: the thousands of predominantly low-income residents who will rid their neighborhoods of a dozen billboards. Governing, after all, is about far more than heeding the loudest voices: it’s about heeding those who often lack a voice.