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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May's second election is here, in which voters will decide on the candidates to represent their party in the November general election after the winner in some March primary races was unclear.
Just like the March primaries, voters will choose which party they choose to vote in. Then based on location, each ballot will show which races are in a runoff.
In Texas, candidates must win at least 50% of the vote to be elected. In the races where the top candidate only received a plurality of votes, a runoff is being held.
Here's everything you need to know before heading to the polls.
Know before you go
Early voting for the Texas primary runoff election begins Monday and will last through May 20; Election Day is May 24.
The registration period for this election has passed; check if you're registered to vote here.
The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. As long as you're in line by 7 p.m., you can vote.
You'll need a valid photo ID to present once you're at a polling location.
Here are the early voting locations in Travis County.
View wait times at polling locations here.
Races to watch in Travis County:
- Republican: Incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick won his primary in March.
- Democratic: Mike Collier and Michelle Beckley are vying to be the Democrat candidate on the ballot.
- Republican: Incumbent AG Ken Paxton is fighting for his seat against George P. Bush.
- Democratic: Rochelle Garza and Joe Jaworski will face off to be the Democratic candidate in this race.
View all the statewide races on the ballot here.
U.S. House of Representatives
View the district you live in here.
- Republican: Incumbent Chip Roy won his primary in March.
- Democratic: Claudia Andreana Zapata and Ricardo Villarreal are hoping to secure this vote.
- Republican: Dan McQueen and Michael Rodriguez are going head to head to be the Republican candidate in this race.
- Democratic: Former Austin council member Greg Casar won this race in March.
- Republican: Ellen Troxclair and Justin Berry are vying to be the Republican candidate in this race.
- Democratic: Pam Baggett won her primary in March.
Texas has been home to some of the country’s biggest celebrities of all time—think Amarillo resident Georgia O'Keeffe, Lubbock’s Buddy Holly and Corpus Christi’s famous singer Selena.
The Pudding’s People Map of the U.S., which shows each city’s “most Wikipedia’ed” resident, placed celebrities from all walks of life on the Texas map. As for Central Texas celebrities, there are some interesting (and not so surprising) names on deck.
Proving that Austin is “alright, alright, alright,” Minister of Culture Matthew McConaughey is both Austin’s and Uvalde’s top Wikipedia’ed resident. McConaughey, who was born in San Antonio adjacent Uvalde, has deeply ingrained himself in Austin by studying Radio-Television-Film at UT Austin, starring in the Austin-filmed movie “Dazed and Confused” and investing in Austin FC.
Heading down just a few miles south, San Marcos claimed former president Lyndon Baines Johnson as Texas State University’s most famous alumni, who graduated in 1930, and was also named in Fredericksburg. LBJ wasn’t the only ex-president on the map—George W. Bush was listed as the top resident in Dallas, Midland, Houston and Crawford.
You’ll see some other names with ties to Austin strewn around the state: Janis Joplin in Beaumont and Port Arthur; Stone Cold Steve Austin in Victoria and Edna; Dan Rather in his hometown of Wharton; and Waylon Jennings in Littlefield.
Venturing outside of the central areas, there are big celebrities who call Texas Home. Actress and artist Selena Gomez dominated search traffic in her hometown of Grand Prairie, musical artist Post Malone was most “Wikipedia’ed” in Grapevine, and Shaquille O’Neal was named in the city where he went to high school, San Antonio.
Plus, Thomas Haden Church, Angela Kinsey, Jessica Simpson, Chuck Norris, Roy Orbison, Ron White, Jessica Alba, Colt McCoy, Jimmy Dean and Johnny Manziel all had at least one city covered on the list.
Where’s Texas’ newest resident, Elon Musk? You’ll find him still in Los Angeles, as his foray into Texas living has just begun.Click here to view the full map.