Sign of the times: City looks at updating rules for digital

By Corene Brisendine

Manhattan is moving into the digital age — at least in terms of signage.

City officials are looking at updating rules for all business signs, but discussion at Tuesday’s commission work session focused specifically on the use of digital signs.

There was general agreement that Manhattan should keep up with technology and allow business owners the opportunity to use digital signs — within certain limits.

Discussion covered the issues of who should be permitted to use such signs; where they should be allowed; how bright the signs should be; and how busy the graphics on digital signs can be without looking ridiculous – or posing a threat to drivers and pedestrians.

Bart Thomas, owner of Thomas Outdoor Advertising, said that he thought all billboard advertising should be prohibited from using digital technology – noting that his company owns more than 70 billboards and not one of them is digital.

“If I had it my way, my company would never own a digital sign,” he said. “They’re a traffic hazard.”

City planner Chad Bunger made it clear, however, that the city was not intending to change any billboard regulations.

Instead, the current focus is regulating “on-site” signs at business, churches, schools and other private organizations that use signs as a form of identification or advertising on their property.

Commissioner Karen McCulloh said that it is always easier to relax regulations than it is to tighten them, and therefore digital sign rules should be as strict as possible.

She also wanted to reduce the “clutter” from temporary signs.

Chris Darrah, owner of Dara’s Fast Lane, said that if he could put up digital signs in place of the marquees he’s currently using, it would reduce the “busy” look of temporary signs at his stores.

Commissioner Usha Reddi said her main concern was safety. She said business owners should be able to use technology that is available, but without endangering the lives of drivers, bicyclists or pedestrians.

The entire commission agreed with that sentiment.

Commissioner Wynn Butler aimed at the issue of location, and suggested that commercial districts and shopping districts were good places for digital signs, but that single-family residential were not.

Butler also said that speed of traffic should correlate to the speed at which the sign changes. He said he thought if signs changed too fast, they could become a dangerous distraction.

Thomas replied that federal regulations require a message be on display for a minimum of seven seconds before it can change.

Commissioners also discussed sidewalk signs in Aggieville, and in the downtown area where pedestrian traffic is heaviest.

“I like the sidewalk signs,” Reddi said. “It has a certain coziness.”

Butler and McCulloh both said that there needed to be limits on the size and location of sidewalk – to ensure that they’re aimed at foot traffic and not vehicles.

Bunger said a draft of proposed regulations should be completed in February.

In March, city officials will hold meetings with specific community groups to get more feedback, and a draft of the new regulations will go before the planning board for review in April.

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