Op-ed: Bring San Jose’s billboard ban back with a ballot measure
Rendering of one of the planned downtown buildings for a digital billboard to be installed by San Jose. Photo courtesy of No Digital Billboards in San Jose.

When it comes to stopping digital billboards in San Jose, don’t expect our City Council to come to the rescue.

That’s because the current council—except Matt Mahan—still favors the special interest billboard lobby, despite a public survey showing residents overwhelmingly oppose digital billboards along San Jose freeways and downtown, and despite the Airport Commission recommending against billboards at the airport, twice. Our group, No Digital Billboards in San Jose (NDBSJ) has been following the issue closely and over the last few years has written 11 op-eds on the subject.

Notwithstanding an election year with new councilmembers to be elected, most of the council is still intent on opening up San Jose to digital billboards that are profitable for billboard companies. NDBSJ has confirmed the city is actively working to approve additional digital billboards. We’re talking about off-premise signs with commercial advertisements of products and services, such as soda or cell phones, not available at the location of the sign. We have no problem with code-compliant, on-premise signs identifying a business, retailer or restaurant whether digital or non-digital.

So, what’s the solution to keeping 22 or more digital billboards off public property and another 75 digital billboards from being permitted on private property? We think it’s putting a measure on the San Jose ballot to reinstate the ban on new billboards on public and private property, prevent the conversion of existing conventional billboards to digital and pledge the city to do everything within the law to remove the maximum number of existing billboards still standing since the 1972 and 1985 bans.

Another provision could be prohibiting the council from monkeying around with a newly voter-approved law without another vote of the people.

Now, don’t get us wrong. NDBSJ will continue to ask candidates for mayor and City Council in favor of billboards to reconsider their position, and appeal for them to base their decisions on public input and the myriad of facts related to the negative impact of billboards on the environment and safety.

We will also continue to ask billboard proponents to justify their bogus arguments, and hold them accountable at council meetings. We’re talking about the claims that billboards will bring more money to the city than they will cost—which they definitely will not; reduce blighted existing billboards—not by enough to matter; and improve the downtown economy—for the 100th time, show us the evidence.

Truth is, a ballot measure will put the issue of new billboards squarely in the hands of the people who can and will save San Jose from becoming the billboard capital of Northern California, and that’s the voters. As a result, residents will not be turned into a captive audience subjected to unwanted commercial messages for which there is no off switch.

And reassuringly, San Jose without billboards can retain its historic character, architectural integrity and natural environment, all adding up to preserving its unique identity, which otherwise would be transformed by intrusive commercial messages into Anyplace, USA.

Encouragingly, many of this year’s candidates for City Council have expressed support for a billboard ban on the ballot, based on their responses to our recent Billboard Questionnaire. And you can help by emailing us your thoughts about a billboard ban ballot measure at [email protected]

Given an outpouring of public support, we will rally, mobilize and lead to victory the already existing majority of voters in favor of a comprehensive and everlasting prohibition on new billboards in San Jose.

Jason Hemp, Les Levitt and John Miller are co-founders of No Digital Billboards in San Jose.

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