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Up to 85 digital commercial billboards could light up the skies all over nature-loving, small-business-owning Austin after a decades-old ban on the bright, flashy signs was recently found by a court to be unconstitutional.
The billboards, which switch images up to every eight seconds, offer exponentially more affordable ad options for small business owners but create what opponents call "visual blight" along highways in both urban centers and unincorporated areas.
At least one City Council member, whose district could include up to 20 digitized billboards if the opinion stands, indicates she would fight for the current ban.
"I believe the City's prohibition of off-premise digital signage stands on solid legal ground, and I will be talking with City legal staff to ensure that this rule remains in place," said Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose District 9 includes much of downtown.
The opinion is focused on an Austin lawsuit but, if allowed to stand with no appeals, would set a precedent that could have statewide and national implications.
The signs in question are "off-premise," which means they advertise businesses that are not at the property where the sign is located. "On-premise" signs are more loosely regulated, and digital signs are generally allowed if they are on the business property.
The two companies who own the analog signs in lawsuit, Lamar Advertising Company and Reagan Outdoor Advertising, asked the city of Austin to allow them to digitize their signs in 2017 but were denied based on the city's sign code.
They sued, arguing, among other things, that the regulations were discriminatory because they allowed some signs to be digital and not others, a distinction they said was content based—and thus violated the First Amendment—because the signs' content is what indicates whether it is off-premise or on-premise. The Fifth Circuit agreed in its Aug. 25 opinion.
The argument against them is at odds with Austin's culture of supporting small businesses, which would benefit from having access to more sign inventory at lower prices and avoiding costs of production, Bill Reagan, founder, chairman and CEO of Reagan Outdoor Advertising, told Austonia in an interview.
"We look forward to the ability to avail ourselves of this technology," Reagan said. "Everything in this world is going more and more digital, not less. Billboards shouldn't be excluded from that technological evolution."
But in a town that loves the soft lights of its historic moon towers and has tried to guard against over-populating the highways with billboards, the idea of digital signs, officially known as "changeable electronic variable message" billboards, blazing against the night sky is a tough one to swallow for opponents.
"It just doesn't make sense for Austin," said Sarah Tober, executive director for Austin-based Scenic Texas told Austonia. "We are a city that loves our wild, natural beauty, and this is the furthest thing from that."
In a Sept. 23 letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council, the group asked the city to appeal the ruling. City officials have not yet indicated whether they will appeal. Their deadline is January 2021.
A long history in Austin
Supporters have also argued that updating analog billboards with the digitized ones is "good for the local economy, will produce less light pollution than floodlights on traditional billboards and can help public safety," according to a report in the Austin Monitor in 2015, before the city updated the codes the following year.
Opponents said the tall commercialized digital billboards do more harm than good, stipulating that highway safety messages currently allowed are often lower to the ground and easier to see while driving.
"The State of Texas has said we do not need to have a digital device in our hands, so why do we need to be looking at a digital device in the sky?" Tober said. "There are health implications, there are mental health health implications, there are physical health implications, and there are physical health implications of having digital billboards. There are also broader environmental implications."
There's also the potential risk of hackers, she noted, who in late 2019 broke into a digital billboard over an interstate in Michigan and broadcasted pornography for several minutes.
At the time, groups like Scenic Texas and its Austin chapter were trying to ban or eliminate billboards altogether. Meanwhile, the supporters were pushing for the codes to further regulate on-premise signs while allowing them to upgrade the technology on existing off-premise billboards to digital.
Eventually, the city landed here on the issue: Keep the 700 billboards the city already had at the time, only let a new one up when an old one comes down, and maintain the ban on digitized off-premise billboards, with some exceptions.
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With more research done on the COVID-19 Delta variant, Austin Public Health is upping its goal of 70% vaccinated to at least 80% due to the extreme virality of the strain.
As more Delta cases are identified—up to 29 cases are confirmed in Travis County—health officials are urging the unvaccinated to get their shots to contain the spread and relieve hospitals from reaching full capacity.
Austin-Travis County surpassed the Stage 5 threshold on Friday and has reached a seven-day average of 61 hospital admissions. However, Austin health leaders have yet to make an official shift as the Delta variant calls for new guidance, APH Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said at a joint Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning.
The new guidance has yet to be released, but Walkes said it will take into account the viral load of Delta on both unvaccinated and vaccinated people.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox, which has a herd immunity threshold of at least 90% vaccinated.
Although 63.42% of those eligible in Travis County are fully vaccinated, breakthrough cases—where vaccinated people are contracting COVID-19—are being identified. APH has identified 1,496 breakthrough cases of the roughly 800,000 vaccinated. Most breakthrough cases are showing less severe symptoms or are asymptomatic, according to APH.
Health officials are still asking residents to wear masks, although the city cannot mandate any masking orders due to an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Our challenge is going to be whether we're going to stand as a community and everyone who can get vaccinated, get vaccinated, and everyone wear a mask—that's what it's going to take," Walkes said.
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Save Austin Now police petition will reach November ballot after county clerk certifies 25,000 signatures
Save Austin Now is now 2-0 over Austin City Council after its petition to add more staffed police officers to the Austin Police Department was certified, garnering over the 20,000 votes needed to make it on an election ballot.
The petition calls for more police staffing per city resident, quicker response times and more training for city police officers in the wake of increasing violent crime rates nationwide and a year of limited APD staffing. The City Council will now decide whether to implement the ordinance outright or add it to the November election ballot; it will likely do the latter.
Over 25,000 of the 27,778 signatures racked up by the public safety petition were certified as valid, well over the 20,000-vote threshold required to be certified with the City Clerk. City Clerk Jannette Goodall placed the city's seal of approval on the petition on Tuesday morning.
The petition, by the same political group that got the camping ban reinstated through a petition in May, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
Austin's 160 patrol vacancies have dropped its staffing rate to 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the department. APD's response time has increased by about one minute and 50 seconds in a year.
The petition comes nearly a year after APD's budgets were slashed by city council following the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, which saw several demonstrators severely injured as millions called for justice in the police-related deaths of George Floyd and locally Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black man killed by APD officer Christopher Taylor, in April 2020.
Austin and the U.S. have experienced a widespread uptick in violent crime rates in 2021. The city has reached 49 homicides in 2021, higher than the total number of murders in all of 2020 and the 38 homicides in the city in 2019. Austin police officers have seen response times rise as the department suffers increased vacancies and fewer newcomers while cadet classes are being readjusted.
Opponents argue the ordinance would ramp up a policing budget while taking away from other departments including Fire, EMS, violence prevention, and mental health care. City Council Member Greg Casar, the Travis County Democratic Party and the Austin Justice Coalition have spoken out against the organization's latest public safety move, calling out the campaign as a "right-wing petition" that misleads those who sign.
🔥 PANTS ON FIRE: Republican-front group Save Austin Now is lying about their petition!
They say their measure is about police reform, when it's really about devastating our city budget - all for the benefit of the police union. Watch the video here ⬇️ #ATX pic.twitter.com/Z6QQSfhHfH
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) August 2, 2021
The latest battle between city council and Save Austin Now will be decided by Austin residents in the Nov. 2 election.
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Austin City Limits fest and iHeartRadio Fest are the latest festivals to announce the removal of rapper DaBaby, who has come under fire for homophobic comments made during a recent festival.
The 29-year-old rapper, whose real name is Jonathan Lyndale Kirk, was dropped by Lollapalooza just hours before his set on Sunday, followed by the Governor's Ball in New York and Nevada's Day N Vegas after making unsolicited comments about men with HIV/AIDS at the Rolling Loud Festival in Miami. Rolling Stone Magazine confirmed with iHeartRadio organizers that DaBaby will no longer perform.
DaBaby will no longer be performing at Austin City Limits Music Festival — lineup update coming soon. pic.twitter.com/jAYfdJFxJf
— ACL Festival (@aclfestival) August 3, 2021
There is no word on who he will be replaced with yet, though rumors on ACL's subreddit, r/aclfestival, are saying they expect Tyler, The Creator, who performed at Lollapalooza. Kirk will be replaced at Day N Vegas by rapper Roddy Ricch.
Kirk later backtracked his offensive statements on his Instagram story, but again faced criticism for not exactly apologizing.
After facing a second round of backlash for his Instagram statements, the rapper posted on Instagram, saying:
In addition to being dropped from the festivals, DaBaby has been denounced by fellow celebrities like Dua Lipa, Madonna and Elton John.
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