Maricopa County officials are considering a proposal that would increase the number and size of digital billboards in the county.
The plan — which was drafted several years ago by Becker Boards, a Phoenix-based billboard company with offices in Miami, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area — is slated to be discussed at a September 9 public hearing before the Maricopa County Planning and Zoning Commission. The commission will then make a recommendation to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, who will ultimately decide whether to adopt the policy.
Currently, digital billboards aren’t technically allowed on unincorporated land in Maricopa County, though local cities such as Phoenix and Tolleson have permitted them for years. (The county does authorize businesses to display on-site digital signs.) The plan pushed by Becker Boards would allow for traditional “static” billboards to be converted into digital billboards along existing freeways in those unincorporated parts of the county. It would also increase the billboard size limit — for both static and digital billboards located near freeways — from 300 square feet to 672 square feet. The maximum height for such billboards would be boosted as well, from the current 30-foot limit to 70 feet.
In Maricopa County, members of the public can request that changes be made to the county’s zoning code by submitting a “text amendment” and paying a fee. That’s what Becker Boards has done in this case.
“We want to bring the county’s ordinance up-to-date to allow digital billboards in appropriate areas,” Mark Becker, the co-founder of Becker Boards, told Phoenix New Times. “This is the way of the future.”
But the proposal has faced significant opposition from many residents in metro Phoenix, advocacy groups, and elected officials. Maricopa County officials have received hundreds of comments or letters opposing the plan, according to county records. The Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Phoenix area chapter of the International Dark Sky Association are among the advocacy groups calling for the plan to be rejected, while elected officials from the Town of Cave Creek have also voiced concerns about the plan.
“The biggest beneficiary would be the sign company itself,” said Neal Haddad, a resident of Arcadia in Phoenix who has helped organize opposition to the plan. “They are writing their own law.”
Critics argue that the plan will cause a host of issues, such as disrupting local wildlife with light generated by digital billboards and adding unattractive signage to the region.
“The Phoenix area already has significant light pollution that affects the dark skies, but that doesn’t mean that we should consider Maricopa County a sacrifice zone and further it,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club. “It doesn’t seem necessary. We don’t think they’ve made a case for why it’s needed.”
Some comments submitted to Maricopa County officials were more pointed in their criticism. Katheryn Royer, a member of the Cave Creek Town Council, wrote in a letter dated July 21 that the “infiltration” of digital billboards throughout Maricopa County would amount to an “assault on one’s senses.” She went on to urge the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to reject the proposal and choose “desert lifestyle preservation over crass commercialism across the Valley.”
“We do NOT live in Las Vegas and there’s a reason… it’s hideous! Phoenix needs to maintain a modicum of dignity and beauty in its landscape (unlike the gawdy WHITE mansions littering our beautiful urban mountains) without completely destroying it with those huge, disgusting, eye of scum lighted flashing billboards [sic],” Christine Battilana, a Phoenix resident, wrote in a comment on July 16. “Give us a break from stupid ideas! Keep Phoenix UN-lit!”
Another Phoenix resident, Bryce Pearsall, wrote on July 27 that the billboards would be a “horrible blight” and a “misuse of public land.”
Becker is quick to note that staff at the Maricopa County Planning and Development Department have explicitly stated in a recent report that much of the concern about issues like light pollution have been addressed with the proposed language in the text amendment and that they recommend approving the changes. He described their plan as “more restrictive than what is currently allowed” because it includes a ban on billboards within scenic corridors.
The proposal does have innate “benefits for the billboard industry,” Becker acknowledged. But he also characterized the plan as having community benefits, such as offering new ways for local businesses to advertise and a provision that the billboards must display AMBER Alerts.
“Really, it’s kind of a win-win-win for everybody,” Becker said.
Most of the comments that Maricopa County received about the plan were critical of it. But the proposal does have some supporters aside from Becker Boards.
Cliff Witt, the owner of CW Construction, a Phoenix-based general contractor, wrote in a letter dated August 24 that the text amendment will allow the company to advertise to areas that they cannot currently reach. Matthew Lopez, a criminal defense attorney in Tempe, wrote in an August 25 letter that client referrals that stemmed from billboards helped his law firm stay in business during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other critics argue that the plan will endanger motorists on local freeways by distracting drivers. Mark Falzone, president of Scenic America, a group that is lobbying against the plan, pointed to a 2020 study commissioned by the California Department of Transportation that found that young people and the elderly are “susceptible to unsafe levels of distraction from roadside billboards.”
“Everybody understands that cellphones and text messages distract drivers,” Falzone said. “Well, digital billboards do as well.”
Becker described the claim that billboards distract drivers as an unfounded myth. He cited a 2014 study conducted by the Federal Highway Administration that found that there is “no consistent evidence showing a safety or distract effect” due to billboard advertising.
“This is a completely dead issue,” he said. “There’s no truth to it whatsoever.”