San Jose commission says city should not allow billboards at airport
The Mineta San Jose International Airport is pictured in this file photo.

A city commission is recommending San Jose not proceed with building two digital billboards at Mineta San Jose International Airport.

The San Jose Airport Commission voted 5-1 Wednesday to reject the project for a myriad of reasons, including concerns over community pushback, light pollution, energy use and transparency throughout the process. But commissioners also voted to accept the project’s environmental impact report, which billboard opponents say opens the door for things to move forward.

The plan, proposed by media company Clear Channel, calls for constructing two digital billboards along Highway 101 on airport property, just north of the terminals. In exchange, the company would take down eight billboards around the city.

It’s a plan that has support from the airport and clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Approving the two proposed billboards provides the best and most-balanced approach for serving the multiple goals of the residents of San Jose,” airport spokesperson Keonnis Taylor told San José Spotlight.

Taylor said the plan addresses concerns about light pollution and brightness by requiring the billboards to be tilted downwards and turned off between midnight and 6 a.m. The signs also would have restrictions on white/bright backgrounds, animation and motion and would include auto-dimming technology to limit brightness based on ambient light levels.

It also would bring in $490,000 in annual revenue—a blip in the airport’s 2021-22 adopted budget of approximately $143.5 million. COVID-19 has impacted Mineta San Jose International Airport, which saw a drop of 53% in passengers last April compared to pre-pandemic times—though holiday travel was up. A San José Spotlight story in September 2021 revealed the airport has a growing $1.2 billion debt from a renovation project in 2005.

Transparency concerns

Dan Connolly, chair of the Airport Commission, said there are pros regardless of how the City Council votes on Feb. 15. If the project moves forward and two billboards are built at the airport, then at least the number of billboards around the city decreases, he said.

“But I can’t provide a blessing to something when I think that things weren’t done in a transparent fashion,” Connolly, who voted against the project, told San José Spotlight.

Connolly has concerns because a request for proposal was not put out by the city for the project. In addition, the original version of the contract, drafted in 2007, explicitly states outdoor billboard advertisings are prohibited. Since then, it’s been amended six times, the most recent to allow for other digital opportunities—an amendment Connolly thinks could contradict the original contract.

“We didn’t go out to bid to see whether or not we were getting the best deal possible, number one,” he said. “And number two, in reading the contract, I still question whether the airport had the authority to enter that contract.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Airport Director John Aitken said the airport was in the clear because of a 2018 vote by the City Council to approve part of a two-phase plan to construct 22 new billboards on city land, including digital ones. The council dropped the second phase of the plan in February 2021 due to public backlash.

If the council approves the project, the city could potentially face challenges from another billboard company, Outfront Media, which claimed in a letter there was no competitive bid.

“Outfront respectfully requests that the city suspend its environmental review and follow the procedural requirements as set forth in (city policy),” the letter reads. “If the city wishes to proceed with the project, the city must issue a request for proposals.”

Jason Hemp, one of the founders of grassroots group No Digital Billboards San Jose, said he was pleased with the commission’s decision not to recommend the project, but wished it did not approve the EIR. This is because if the City Council votes to approve the environmental report, the city could still move forward with constructing the two digital billboards at the airport. Hemp also noted there was a discrepancy in the calculation of how much power each of these displays would take.

He continued that he was not pleased with Clear Channel’s concession to remove eight billboards because approving the two digital billboards opens up the city to many more not only in San Jose, but across the region.

“We think (the plan) is a red herring because all of the concerns that we raised were not significantly addressed,” Hemp told San José Spotlight.

He said the energy consumed by billboards is contradictory to the city’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2030, in addition to posing a safety hazard because the signs could distract drivers.

Hemp also points to a survey by the San Jose Planning Commission which found 93% of respondents opposed new digital billboards in the city.

“It’s simple, listen to the public,” Hemp said. “We don’t want it, it’s an eyesore and let’s keep San Jose beautiful.”

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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