Ann Arbor Delays on Digital Signs

Final approval to changes in the city’s sign ordinance – to allow for only a limited type of digital signs – has been delayed by the Ann Arbor city council. And because a council-enacted moratorium on applications for digital signs was set to expire on April 11, 2013, the council decided to extend that moratorium until July 1, 2013.

The ordinance revisions were postponed until the council’s first meeting in May – on May 6.

According to the resolution approved by the council, the purpose of postponing a decision on the ordinance amendment and extending the moratorium was to allow for additional time to review the proposed amendments and to “gather input from the public and interested parties, and to promote the public health, safety, and welfare of city residents.”

If enacted, the changes would mean that a limited type of digital signs would be allowed in the city. But the effect of the proposed ordinance changes would be that no billboards would be permitted – although the existing 28 billboards in the city would be allowed to remain as non-conforming signs. Existing billboards would not be allowed to be retrofitted for digital displays. The council had given initial approval of the changes at its March 18, 2013 meeting. [.pdf of proposed outdoor advertising ordinance]

Billboards on Liberty Steet at First, near the edge of downtown Ann Arbor, looking east.

Billboards on West Liberty Street at First, near the edge of downtown Ann Arbor, looking east. (Photo illustration by The Chronicle.)

Under the proposed ordinance changes, new billboards – signs with an area greater than 200 square feet – could not be constructed. And existing signs of that size could not have electronic features added to allow for changeable text or images.

The existing sign ordinance does not allow for any changeable text, except for “noncommercial information which requires periodic change” – like time and temperature. So the proposed changes to the ordinance would allow for changeable portions of a sign, subject to the limitation that the changeable portion of the sign not be more than half the area of any sign and no more than 30 square feet per sign and 15 square feet per sign face. Additional limitations would prevent flashing and scrolling – by not allowing changes to content more often than 15 minutes. The proposed ordinance language states:

Changeable copy shall not and shall not appear to flash, undulate, pulse, blink, expand, contract, bounce, rotate, spin, twist, or otherwise move.

The proposed ordinance restrictions on dynamic elements of signs were motivated in part – based on remarks of city planning manager Wendy Rampson at the council’s March 18 meeting – by the perception that these elements are a distraction to motorists. That argument has been countered by Adams Outdoor Advertising in written communication to the city by citing studies that conclude any distraction does not cause a greater rate of traffic accidents.

The proposed ordinance changes would place a maximum brightness of any illuminated sign, including those that are digital/electronic: 5,000 nits during the day and 100 nits at night, and in no case greater than 0.1 foot-candles above the already existing amount of light at a residential property line. One nit is defined as one candela per square meter. A candela is about the amount of light produced by a common tallow candle.

By way of comparison, an iPhone 5 display is reported to have a brightness of about 500 nits.

The moratorium on digital signs was first enacted for 180 days at the council’s April 17, 2012 meeting. And the city council had extended the moratorium for an additional 180 days at its Oct. 1, 2012 meeting.

Falling under the moratorium are “billboards commonly referred to as ‘electronic message centers,’ ‘electronic message boards,’ ‘changeable electronic variable message signs,’ or any billboard containing LEDs, LCDs, plasma displays, or any similar technology to project an illuminated image that can be caused to move or change, or to appear to move or change, by a method other than physically removing and replacing the sign or its components, including by digital or electronic input.”

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]