Virtually no new billboards have gone up in Austin since the early 1980s, when the city council placed a moratorium on their growth and enacted an outright ban on electronic versions of roadside signs, a technology that was then in its infancy.
That all may be about to change—and if it does, billboard opponents will have no one to blame but a handful of arrogant bureaucrats at city hall.
The story begins last fall, when Austin’s Third Court of Appeals released a bombshell decision in a case brought by Michael Kleinman, the owner of the local “Planet K” shops and an outspoken libertarian. Kleinman had filed the suit against the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) after it cited him for displaying a “Ron Paul for President” sign in front of his Bee Cave store beyond the window of time Texas law allowed for political advertising along roadways. Kleinman argued that his constitutional right to free speech trumped the state’s desire to control signage.
The Third Court agreed. It did more than slap TXDOT’s wrist in the process, though—way more. It struck down the bulk of the state’s Highway Beautification Act, the law that regulates billboards in Texas, as unconstitutional.
The court found that Texas had created and implemented different sets of rules for different types of signs, and that it used the content of their messages to do so. The state kept one set of rules for political signs, one set for signs that advertise products sold in stores on the same parcel of land, and another set for roadside billboards. That court saw that as a naked violation of the First Amendment: Speech can be regulated by the government, but not based upon the nature of its content.
The Third Court’s decision has left Austin’s local sign regulations on dangerously thin ice. Here’s why: While our local city council has long banned digital billboards, it has never lifted a finger to control the proliferation of digital signs put up by local stores. Legally speaking, the city council distinguishes billboards from store signs based upon the types of products they advertise, the same methodology that the Third Court found to be unconstitutional.
That’s why the consultants working on CodeNEXT have hesitated to rewrite Austin’s sign laws with the city’s digital-billboard ban in place. They’re afraid that ban opens the door to a high-stakes lawsuit by local billboard owners, who have spent the last couple of years trying to talk the city council into a compromise allowing for a handful of digital billboards along busy arteries like I-35 and Highway 183. If city leaders refuse that compromise and get sued, Austin’s entire sign ordinance may be struck down just as quickly as the state’s billboard law was, creating a “Wild West” environment overnight. Billboards of all types could quickly pop up in neighborhoods throughout town.
Whether it’s cramming CodeNEXT down our throats or losing its own sign law through naked overregulation, Austin’s elected officials seem hell-bent on doing whatever the real estate industry demands. Enough is enough! It’s time for local residents to take matters into their own hands. Sign our petitions calling for a public vote on CodeNEXT and for a sensible sign ordinance.
Let the voters decide, y’all!