This week City Council will vote to shape 20 years of hodgepodge sign and billboard regulations into a more coherent document and address the treatment of emerging technologies.

City staff worked with a committee of stakeholders on the issue for more than one year after Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) filed a Council Consideration Request in September 2015. From the general public’s viewpoint, the decision-making process was flawed. This is about regulating signs, so the majority of the committee had a stake in the sign industry – which is understandable.

Problems arose when there was a disagreement about the value of signs. The purpose of advertising is to attract the viewer, namely the public. But some viewers don’t necessarily want to be attracted. Others want to know how to find locations identified by on-premise signs. Many do not appreciate the number of off-premise billboards, which advertise merchandise not sold at that location. For example, a large sign on Broadway Street just north of downtown advertises restaurants or car dealerships near Loop 1604.

Is there evidence that billboards are unpopular? In the late 1980s, the Planning Department held public meetings along certain scenic corridors – such as parts of U.S. Highway 281/I-37, Loop 1604, State Highway 151, and Wurzbach Parkway – and asked attendees if they wanted new billboards. In each instance, the viewing public asked for design standards that would prevent new billboards.

Billboards are visible from I-35.
Several billboards are visible from I-35. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This also occurred when urban corridors were later established along parts of Broadway and North St. Mary’s streets, the Main Street/McCullough Avenue area, and the Southside. Among the purposes of scenic corridors are the safeguarding of San Antonio’s heritage and preserving, protecting, and enhancing areas of high tourist and visitor visibility.

It became a problem when the billboard industry proposed relocating signs that must be removed due to road-widening from scenic to urban corridors. Urban corridors lack the specific language that official scenic corridors and historic districts have, which explains that billboard relocations are prohibited. Neighborhood, professional, and civic groups on the committee objected, but we were outvoted by the preponderance of sign industry representatives. Our only recourse now is to appeal to City Council to take into consideration the values of the viewing public and apply the same standards to urban corridors that we do to scenic corridors and historic overlay districts.

On another matter of neighborhood concern, City staff had proposed adding a section to the ordinance that would buffer neighborhoods from commercial signage. By the end of the committee process, the language was so watered down that it provided very little protection. Once again, neighborhoods were outvoted.

The minority of neighborhood, professional, and civic groups on the committee are offering three specific amendments that would correct these two problems for scenic corridors and neighborhood boundaries that provide a more balanced approach that takes into consideration the proven desire of the viewing public to minimize the impact of off-premise billboards. It hopes the City Council will listen and act on its modest request.

Click here to download a document outlining our specific amendment requests.

Requirements for Signs Near Residential Property

In a section addressing freestanding signs on a property next to a single-family residence, the draft ordinance calls for minimum buffer/setback and height restriction ratio that we would like to see strengthened.

Instead of 1 foot of setback per additional 1 foot of sign height, it should be 2:1 – as originally suggested by City staff. Neighborhood representatives did not agree to a 1:1 ratio, seeking some relief from taller billboards next to their homes. But the decision was made by vote, and the majority voted to compromise the original wording.

We also believe that two additional sections, both of which allow for exceptions when agreements have been reached between nearby property owners and sign owners, will lead to compromising the intent of protecting neighborhoods in some instances. This would allow for more flexibility, but that should be considered as part of a variance application, not in code.

Add Urban Corridors to Protected List

Urban corridors deserve the same treatment as historic districts and scenic corridors. New billboards are not allowed in historic districts or in established and future scenic corridors if design standards exclude them. The same standard should apply to urban overlay districts.

When signs or billboards are forced to move because of government action, i.e. when a highway is moved or widened and/or when eminent domain applies, a sign that was located in a scenic corridor, urban corridor, or historic district can relocate to an urban corridor, according to the draft ordinance.

Asking that signs not be relocated in historic, scenic, and urban corridors can be justified by process. When these overlay districts were set up, the public was involved in setting design standards, and the public chose to exclude the placement of new billboards. We ask City Council to honor that commitment and to allow citizens to make the same determination in the future, if they so decide. While many of us would prefer to oppose billboard companies being allowed to move their signs altogether, we do recognize that it has been allowed on a one-on-one basis for many years in the case of government action.

A billboard for an eczema research study lines N Panam Expy.
A billboard for an eczema research study lines Loop 410. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report
  • Northside Neighborhoods for Organized Development, represented by June Kachtik
  • The American Institute of Architects, San Antonio Chapter, represented by David Bogle, AIA
  • District 9 Neighborhood Alliance, represented by Art Downey
  • San Antonio Conservation Society, represented by Kathy Kakrnavek
  • Scenic San Antonio, represented by Kathleen Trenchard
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June Kachtik

June Kachtik is chair of Scenic San Antonio and represented Northside Neighborhoods Organized for Development on the City’s Committee to Revise the Sign Code.