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Monday, February 15, 2010

Tap dancing with effective content-neutral billboard regulations

Two years ago Cincinnati City Council member Chris Bortz proposed that the City should more intensely regulate advertising benches seen placed along Cincinnati's sidewalks. The intent of Bortz's effort was to clean up the city's streets by ridding them of these often unsightly bench billboards that bring in around $900 a year per bench.

After Bortz's proposal took effect the City removed some illegal bench billboards that were not properly permitted and paying the $30/year fee to the City for using the public right-of-way. With more than 1,000 of these benches located across the city there is a huge revenue opportunity being missed.

The problem is that these bench billboards are often not well maintained and create an unappealing aesthetic where they are located. Many of the benches located near bus stops tend to collect trash which then must be managed by the City. When Bortz discussed the issue in 2007 he stated that he would like to see the benches replaced with "rod iron" style benches that would help clean up the appearance around bus stops and the city's neighborhood business districts.

Bench Billboard photograph by Jake Mecklenborg

The issue is one that closely aligns with First Amendment rights, but a recent Federal Court decision that found a new right-of-way encroachment ordinance in Covington constitutional gives the issue new life. The court ruled that Covington can regulate items such as advertising benches, vending machines, and newspaper stands to meet certain size and aesthetic standards.

"This is a great step in the right direction that helps the City reduce sign pollution and encroachments in the public right-of-way," said Covington City Manager Larry Klein. "The ordinance allows the City to continue its beautification efforts, and ensures that the public can traverse City sidewalks safely."

Local governments can carefully craft content-neutral without the fear of acting unconstitutionally. When doing so the government must regulate in a way that does not involve the suppression of speech and violate the First Amendment. The government must also illustrate that the law serves an important objective (like aesthetics according to the Covington ruling) and is crafted in a way that allows for alternative means of communication.

Cincinnati should regulate bench billboards and other items placed in the public right-of-way more heavily. At the very least the City should charge more for the use of their valuable real estate to capture a greater revenue stream. Policies that move Cincinnati forward in such a direction could steer the way for more aesthetically pleasing benches and newspaper stands, and help accomplish the very things City Council member Bortz outlined in 2007.


Unknown said...

did you maybe mean "wraught iron"?

Randy Simes said...

No, "rod iron" was taken directly from a statement that Councilman Bortz released in 2007.

Unknown said...

oops--- I misspelled it the first time --- "wrought iron".

glad to know our elected officials don't even know the right terms :-p

Nathan said...

Two questions:

1. I'm not sure what is meant by the tendency of the benches to "collect trash." And I'm not sure what this has to do with the billboard issue. Does this suggest the need for trashcans to be nearby? How does changing the content and/or existence and/or type of bench (i.e. wraught iron) affect this issue?

2. So is the effect of what is implied here with regard to content in practical terms mean that billboards judged to have certain content -- for example the beg bug one from the photo -- will not be permitted? I don't see how banning certain advertisers would be possible without tramping on constitutional rights. As much as we might not like the appearance of that (or others), if we are going to allow and/or promote such billboards, as soon as we start making judgments over "appropriate" content, aren't we getting into difficult terrain that in spirit at least violates the First Amendment?

Randy Simes said...


1) The accumulation of trash at these benches tends to occur for the reason that people gather there as they're waiting for a bus. So while it is not directly correlated with the bench itself, or the advertising on it, the accumulation of trash is consolidated into the concerns of political and community leaders about the cleanliness and aesthetics of Cincinnati's neighborhoods.

2) No, content-neutral regulations would have no impact on the type of advertising that is placed on any billboards...that's the whole idea. Instead what content-neutral regulations oversee is the aesthetics of the bench, billboard, newspaper stand, or whatever else. The regulations focus on size, illumination, and other features like that, but does NOT focus on any sort of content. Does that make sense?

Paul Wilham said...

Cincinnati should do what many cities have already done, eliminate private benches in favor or city owned benches that are part of right of way landscape strips with proper lighting.

Not EVERYTHING this city government touches needs to be a revenue stream.

While we are at it we need to start phasing out and eliminating billboards in historic areas like OTR and we need to make lighted sign billboards illegal with the goal of elimination of all billboards by 2020.

Especially along the freeway. It makes the city look cheap and unkempt.

The city looks "cluttered' and views are destroyed. We need to start taking an "appearance first' approach that will attract business to the city, other cities are doing it, so should we.

Randy Simes said...


One thing that is interesting about Over-the-Rhine, and other historic neighborhoods, is that advertisements painted on the side of buildings have become a part of the history. Do you feel there would there be any value in creating a code that allowed for these types of billboards?

Paul Wilham said...

In most cities, Historic signs are considered part of a buildings facade and must be maintained. Those signs have "historical context" in a buisness district.

Billboards and bench signs are "another animal" as they say. I think the council really needs to look at the issue of signage and clutter. It is amazing to me that it was ever allowed to put steel superstuctures on top of historic houses to hold billboards.

I know of one house in the West End that is a "time capsule" house. Original plaster moldings and medallions, walnut trim, interior shutters and slate and cast iron mantles, that is slowly deteriorating because a sign company bought a few years back just to be able to keep the billboard on top of it because they were afraid if someone bought it to restore, they wouldn't renew the lease. That MUST be stopped.

To be fair, the billboard ban should be phased in over a 5-7 year period. But a view of our historic architecture from the highway could be one of our best selling points but you can't see that for all the billboards that are there now. Short term revenues from signage permits are a fraction of the tax revenues generated by restored houses.

king kevin said...

I couldn't agree more. We need to eliminate ugly advertising billboards. The light-up billboards are particularly offensive to me.

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