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.
Want to read more stories like this one? Start every day with a quick look at what's happening in Austin. Sign up for Austonia.com's free daily morning email.
- Police union launches anti-defund billboard campaign in Austin ... ›
- Annual Austin Trail of Lights drive-thru tickets are on sale - austonia ›
- Why you can’t see the stars in Travis County and efforts - austonia ›
After months of speculation, a new report says political personality Beto O'Rourke is mulling a run for Texas governor that he will announce later this year.
Sources tell Axios the former congressman is preparing his campaign for the 2022 election, where he will likely vie for the position against incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. The only other candidate that has announced he will take on Abbott for governor is former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West—no Democrats have announced they are running as of yet.
"No decision has been made," Axios reports David Wysong, O'Rourke's former House chief of staff and a longtime adviser, said. "He has been making and receiving calls with people from all over the state."
A new poll from The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler shows O'Rourke is narrowing the gap between himself and Abbott's prospects for governor. In the poll, 37% said they'd vote for O'Rourke over Abbott, while 42% said they'd vote for Abbott.
Abbott has been in the hot seat due to his handling of COVID-19 and the signing of landmark legislation into law, including new abortion and voting rights laws; 54% of poll respondents voted they think the state is headed in the "wrong direction." Still, Texas hasn't had a Democrat as governor since the 90s.
O'Rourke's people-focused approach to the 2018 Senator race, which he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz, gave him a widespread following and many hoped he'd throw his hat into the ring since he said he was considering it earlier this year.
"We hope that he's going to run," Gilberto Hinojosa, the state chair of the Democratic Party, told Axios. "We think he'll be our strongest candidate. We think he can beat Abbott because he's vulnerable."
Austin rapper Jordi Esparza may not have won the 2021 Red Bull Batalla, the world's largest Spanish freestyle rap competition, but for a spirited two rounds, the 22-year old Mexican native looked like he had every right to.
On Saturday evening in Los Angeles, the event itself looked like Cobra Kai meets Star Search with graphics adding a very Batman Beyond aesthetic. Over a dozen rappers hoping to represent the U.S. in the international round of the competition took to the stage with in-your-face jabs at accents, sexual orientation and odors, among other things.
This was Esparza's second rodeo; he had placed third at the 2020 National Finals, automatically securing him a spot this year.
However, things were different this year. He was not nervous about the contest. Unlike in 2020, when he made his Red Bull Batalla debut, the anxiety of the event led him to "feeling so bad."
Affecting a casual calm, the locally-based landscaper said he just felt "so relaxed, so happy" and primarily wanted to "enjoy everything."
Choosing his first-round opponent, Esparza, whose stage name is Jordi, elected to go against LA-based Boss.
Esparza freestyled an attack on his opponent's weight and cholo style of dress.
Boss—bracketing his Latin freestyle with English appeals to the crowd—mocked Jordi's lack of education, made fun of how clean Jordi's shoes looked and suggested that Jordi just came back from a Footlocker.
That first round went to Jordi.
But his next opponent Eckonn would prove to be his undoing.
Eckonn compared Jordi to Hannah Montana, while Jordi soulfully explained that he had learned from the best.
Esparza's verbal dexterity is matched by a rattling rhythm and a game face that is as mawkish as it is mockish. The overall effect is that of an underdog with bite.
Eckonn beat Esparza in that round with the overall championship going to Palm Beach-based rapper Reverse.
However, Esparza was just happy to be there. He recently told Austonia going to the finals again was a dream come true—a pinnacle that he said he won't know how to top.
With his nimble jabs and sneaky prowess, honed from pop culture and the swagger of a young working man hungry to be more, Jordi Esparza is just getting started.