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City, Clear Channel Come to an Accord Over LED Billboards

Two billboards along I-35 will soon go digital, a change that took four meetings and hours of sometimes heated discussion.

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A contentious issue came to a quiet end this Tuesday.

Without another word spoken, the Burnsville City Council approved an agreement with Clear Channel Outdoor, which first approached the council in June, asking the city to loosen its billboard ordinances to allow LED displays. In the mid-1980s, Burnsville tightened its sign ordinances, with the ultimate goal of eliminating billboards entirely.

The request sparked an unexpectedly lively discussion, with some pro-business elements on the council arguing that the ordinance was outdated and others countering that the deal was not in Burnsville's best interests. Some even went so far as to say that Clear Channel's offer to give the city free ad space on the billboards was a quid pro quo.

"I'm very, very uncomfortable on doing that. My sense is that it is giving something to get something," said Council Member Mary Sherry. "To me, that's troubling from an ethical point of view."

Sherry and Mayor Elizabeth Kautz urged more public discussion and review, perhaps by a special resident committee. The two holdouts relented during round two in October, when the council unanimously approved an ordinance amendment allowing dynamic display billboards along the city's interstate and arterial corridors. The amendment permits companies to convert existing, traditional billboards in Burnsville into digital signs on the condition that they remove at least one other standing billboard in the city.

Under the new ordinance, only static images would be allowed on the digital billboards—flashing lights or animation would be prohibited. To reduce the distraction for drivers, each message would have to be displayed on the sign for a minimum of eight seconds, and each sign would be equipped with an ambient light monitor that can adjust the brightness of the sign to match outdoor lighting conditions.

The owners of dynamic display billboards are also required to display public service announcements on behalf of the city, according to the ordinance.

With complete approval in hand, Clear Channel plans to convert a billboard at CR 11 and I-35E to an LED display. The company will also update a billboard located on the Kraemer property (a parcel near the former Burnsville Volkswagen). In exchange, the city will get a maximum of five hours of advertising per month on each sign. 

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