Coquitlam has taken a big step toward allowing electronic billboards.
Although the decision was far from unanimous, city council on Monday approved first three readings of a bylaw to allow the signs. In July, after several outdoor advertising companies approached the city, council asked staff to explore the possibility.
Mayor Richard Stewart said council, at his urging, rejected the concept in 2013 by a narow 4-3 vote.
“At the time there was an applicant that was, to some degree, coercing us because they would challenge us in court if we refused them on the basis that freedom of speech would protect them,” said Stewart.
He added turning it down then was the right decision and turning it down now would be the right decision because of driver distraction and visual clutter. “Until the autonomous car comes I’m not going to support them and even then they’ll probably be reading a book.”
A city staff report said American studies done in 2012 and 2015 determined while drivers momentarily glanced at electronic billboards as they drove past, they still kept the majority of their attention on driving.
Van Horne Outdoor hired a research group to do a telephone survey of 300 Coquitlam residents in early 2017 in which 12% said the signs were a bad idea, 32% a good idea and 40% said it would depend on the details such as location and message content. A public online survey conducted by the city in September had 1,159 responses with 73% opposed, 14% in favour and 13% undecided. Visual clutter was the biggest concern.
The report said any billboards on city land would still have to undergo a review and approval process in which council could require city messaging and other public benefits — such as contributions to non-profit organizations and revenue for the city’s coffers — be provided by the sign companies. If it’s on private land, however, any community benefits would be voluntary although council could still decline the application.
Coun. Dennis Marsden didn’t put much stock in the online survey because there were “very clear significant indications of people trying to manipulate” the outcome through social media.
He said the electronic billboards have the potential to bring in revenue to the city and the community, and get the message out for not only city activities but in case of emergency. He cited the case of his own father going missing and how an alert on a large billboard could have helped.
“I see a number of positive things that we can do with this,” said Marsden. “[Rejecting the billboards] rubs me the wrong way when I think back to the hell we went through when my father walked away.”
Coun. Trish Mandewo said, “I know a lot of community programs are quite excited about this.” But she didn’t like companies not having an obligation to contribute.
“I’m conflicted,” said Mandewo, who did vote to send the bylaw to public hearing.
Coun. Brent Asmundson gave his support saying under the bylaw, with the exception of Highway 1 signs, council would have the power to approve or reject individual applications.
Although he voted against it in 2013, Coun. Craig Hodge supported the first three readings but wanted to know more before giving his final approval. Hodge said if distracted driving was a problem the province would have already banned them. As for being an eyesore, he said with New Westminster, Port Coquitlam, Surrey and Pitt Meadows having had them for years the genie is already out of the bottle and there seems to be a “greater acceptance of them.”
Conversely, Coun. Teri Towner supported the signs in 2013, although she wasn’t on council then, but didn’t Monday because of the reaction she got when she put it out on social media on the weekend.
“I got an abundance of input and only about 15% supported the signs,” said Towner.
Coun. Bonita Zarrillo said while she sympathized with Marsden’s experience she couldn’t support it because although the city might receive some revenue it wouldn’t go toward operating expenses and reduce taxes.
“I think it’s a real shame we’ve spent this much time on this considering all of our other priorities,” said Zarrillo. “If we’re going to inflict this on the citizens of Coquitlam I want to make sure it’s lowering the tax burden, and I’m not hearing that.”