Op-ed: San Jose Airport Commission to City Council—say no to digital billboards
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.

The San Jose Airport Commission, at its Nov. 8 meeting, voted resoundingly to reject the city report advocating the construction of four—not two—1,000-square-foot digital billboards on Mineta San Jose International Airport property near the Guadalupe River Trail. These billboards,  known as off-premise signs, advertise products and services not available at the location of the sign—in other words products from national brands like soda, fast food and cellphones.

The commission was not only following overwhelming public opposition to billboards, but leading as well. Commissioner Dan Connolly and six of his colleagues decided to reject the unconvincing arguments offered by Airport Director John Aitken and staff in support of a scheme that clearly benefits only billboard company Clear Channel Outdoor, the airport not so much and the public not at all.

The commission voted against the proposed billboards because they would not generate sufficient revenue to make up the cost of their implementation and operation. That cost includes traffic hazards, environmental impacts, unjustifiable energy use, the  normalization of in-your-face digital billboards throughout San Jose and the out-of control commercialization they would bring. In considering that reality, Commissioner Lisa Marie Smith remarked that, “There must be other ways to bring money in.”

And how little money are we talking about? Commission Vice Chair Ken Pyle estimated the revenue from the proposed airport digital billboards would amount to just 0.3% of the airport’s annual operating budget.

But insufficient revenue was not the only concern troubling commissioners. They felt taken advantage of by what was perceived as the airport staff’s lack of transparency,  accountability and honesty in its determination to bring the first digital billboards to San Jose.

The obsession to advance development of the proposed airport billboards ranges from deliberately excluding their consideration in the Airport Master Plan Environmental Impact Report, to ignoring the city policy that specifies billboard size and height limits, as well as requiring companies to take down four conventional billboards in San Jose for each new digital billboard constructed. Amazingly, the airport plan calls for a 2:1 takedown ratio and for the removed billboards to be in another part of the state!

Most egregious was the airport’s insistence that its existing 2007 contract with Clear Channel for indoor and bus stop advertising at SJC could be expanded in 2021 to include standalone outdoor digital billboards, which at the time of the 2007 contract were banned from San Jose. The fair and transparent approach would have been to entertain competitive bidding from multiple vendors.

For some on the commission, the awarding of the airport billboard contract without competitive bidding was a contradiction of the staff’s oft-repeated justification that the airport billboards would be a big generator of needed revenue. These and other questionable actions taken by the airport led Commissioner Catherine Hendrix to remark, “This project needs to be put on the back-burner and then never surface again.”

So what does the Airport Commission’s vote mean? As they are an advisory group to the City Council, that means councilmembers are actually in a position to either put this scheme on a back-burner, or to go ahead and permit the first of 22 or more digital billboards on public property. We believe it is way past time for the council to revisit Policy 6-4, passed in September 2018, as “Phase 1” which allowed digital billboards on city-owned property.

The policy promised a few million dollars to the city in digital billboard top line annual revenue, but has not taken into account the cost of permitting, managing and regulating digital billboards. Who knows how many millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent over the past six years paving the way for digital billboards, let alone ongoing costs and risks that could easily produce a negative bottom line?

The cost of litigation by disgruntled billboard companies is almost certain to befall the city. In fact, a billboard industry publication has written an entire article about it. Be prepared to expand the city’s legal department, which is already involved in a court battle over illegal digital billboards in San Jose. Litigation costs incurred by the city is a reality few in government acknowledge, and a valuable lesson to be learned by the rampant proliferation of billboard lawsuits in Los Angeles.

Given all that and more, we urge councilmembers to devote time to conduct a thorough review and analysis of the policy. We need answers to questions such as how we got here, and how close we have come to the brink of the transformation of San Jose’s  distinctive sense of place into a commercialized Anyplace, USA—if we allow a proliferation of billboards.

Listen to the people. The City Council should start with rejecting the airport billboard proposal and proceed to enacting a moratorium on any new billboards. We believe that you, our City Council, channeling the same environmentalist mindset that recently voted to protect Coyote Valley, is more than able to say no to new billboards and instead forever be remembered for supporting the public interest.

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

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