Surprise sign code proposal would open door for billboards

An electronic sign is pictured on the corner of Bell Road and Bullard Avenue July 27 in Surprise. Due to current sign codes in the city, only 3 of these electronic billboards are in Surprise, and all are owned and operated by the city. [Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia]
By Richard Smith
Independent Newsmedia

While tonight’s Planning and Zoning Commission discussion of temporary signs looms as the hot button issue, the July 20 discussion on signs brought an interesting topic into play.

Surprise is visually bereft of billboards — either the traditional kind or the newer electronic displays. This is by design as commercial billboards are not allowed under current city code.

As part of the revision process, city staff and commission members debated allowing the billboards. Though specifics need to be ironed out, the consensus was electronic billboards could work in smaller numbers at first along two local transit corridors.

“Since that time, we’ve had some input from community members and the billboard industry and there is an opportunity, perhaps, for some billboard signs. There might be opportunities to incorporate on-premise advertising along Grand Avenue in an area that wants to have transit-oriented development, according to our general plan. There may be opportunities on the 303.” Surprise Planner Robert Kuhfuss said at the July 20 meeting.

Commission members and staff are particularly supportive of the concept if it can generate revenue for the city.

Resident Andy Cepon brought up a proposal from he made to late councilman Roy Villanueva about a decade ago. Mr. Cepon wanted the city to look into allowing billboards near Grand and Bell Road and capturing some of that money to use for street lights, police services and other necessities in the Original Town Site.

The proposal did not gain traction at the time. Mr. Cepon said reviving that idea and using it for a similar manner in the OTS, and others along the 303 could be used.

“I strongly feel that electronic billboards should be limited to the 303 corridor and the Grand Avenue corridor. Legally, there is a way the city can capture part of that revenue, whether it is an agreement or whatever,” Mr. Cepon said.

With one or two small exceptions, the commission agreed that if billboards are allowed, they should be limited to the two highways in the city — U.S. 60 (Grand Avenue) and State Route 303.

Commission members who urged proceeding with caution — namely Dennis Smith, Matthew Keating, Ken Chapman and Mitchell Rosenbaum — also were in favor of limiting the number of billboards, as other Valley cities have.

Kurt Jones, a senior planner for Phoenix-based Tiffany and Bosco P.A., spoke on behalf of an outdoor advertiser.

“I think you have the ability to pick and choose what Surprise wants to be if you have a billboard ordinance.,” Mr. Jones said. “You have the ability like Buckeye did — theyhave a maximum of eight. In the future, if you like what you see, you could increase that number.”

Mr. Smith said he prefers the electronic billboards with changing messages and likes how Buckeye limits their use.

He said at first Surprise may want more on Loop 303, and maybe a few less on Grand Avenue. The new coade, he said, would need to restrict the billboards’ height, how close they are to freeways and include a buffer zone for residential areas.

“I think we need to be very specific if we write to allow these type of signs. Anything else would have to come back to us and the council. And we have to be very careful about how close they are to residential areas,” Mr. Smith said.

Also, he said, electronic signs replacing all businesses on a monument sign for a shopping center would be a problem. That could lead to six separate electronic signs on one monument.

Gisele Norberg and Mr. Smith were among the loudest voices in opposition to traditional print billboards, even if the frame and design is more modern and ornate looking.

“I personally don’t like static message billboards. I don’t think it’s good for our city. I think they’re tacky. I think the ones that are electronic are wonderful. It’s attractive. I think they’re fantastic,” Ms. Norberg said.

Commissioner Dennis Bash said city staff can work with vendors to come up with an appealing package when presenting an updated draft in September.

Eric Cultum was the most gung-ho commissioner on the concept. He said billboards on Bell Road would probably be to much, but would like to explore adding the electronic messages at several, if not all, entrance points to Surprise on arterial roads.

“We only have so many entrances on the east side of our city. There’s the opportunity for us to sell and boast and market what our city is all about at our easterly entrances,” Mr. Cultum said.

Commercial billboards could also allow for updated Surprise-related messages advertising city-run events in their regular rotation.

Right now, the only three electronic billboards in the city capable of changing their messages are owner and operated by the city itself — at the intersection of Bullard Avenue and Bell Road for Surprise Recreation Campus, at Greenway Road and Grand, and at the AZ TechCelerator.

Local and statewide public safety organizations can use electronic billboards for Amber Alerts and Silver Alerts.

Mr. Chapman asked it each message could be displayed longer, perhaps 12 seconds. He was told eight seconds is the industry standard.

He also asked for research on electronic signs and distracted drivers.

James Carpentier, speaking on behalf of the Arizona Sign Association, said a 2012 federal government study looked at billboards.

“What that study shows is the glance rate at electronic billboards is about 1.2 seconds. The federal government declared glance rates dangerous at two seconds,” Mr Carpentier said. “Out of a similar study, the glance rate for texting is 4.1 seconds. That’s why some states have banned texting while driving — it’s dangerous.”

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