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John Nephew

Maplewood City Council Policy & Politics


Freeway TV in Maplewood

Tonight I attended the meeting of Maplewood's Community Design Review Board. There were detailed discussions about plans to build a Costco, and to expand the Corner Kick Soccer Center. What stood out to me most, however, was a question raised by vice chair Matt Ledvina late in the meeting: What's up with the big LED billboard along I-494 in south Maplewood?

The story goes something like this: Clear Channel Communications applied for a permit to repair an old billboard along the freeway, and were granted it. However, instead of the simple repairs expected, the old billboard was replaced with a huge light-emitting diode (LED) screen, essentially a gigantic (175 square feet) flat screen television, which can have changing advertisements, animation, flashing images, etc.

They did the same thing in numerous metro suburbs, resulting in quite an outcry, legal actions, and moratoria. Neighbors in many communities object to the bright, shifting displays, and some in law enforcement are concerned about safety and driver distraction on our high-speed roads. Minnetonka disconnected the power to the two LED billboards in their city, and a court upheld their right to do so.

In the case of Maplewood, it seems to be a blatant violation of our existing billboard ordinance, which like Minnetonka's prohibits flashing signs. The city asked Clear Channel to apply for a variance. Clear Channel did not wish to do so, explaining that a variance would require a demonstration of unique hardship, which they did not believe they could provide. So the city gave them an alternative: this particular billboard already had some kind of special treatment in terms of setback or something, so Clear Channel could apply for a conditional use permit, and treat this as a modification of an existing special arrangement rather than a brand new variance.

According to a Lillie Papers article, Clear Channel was given February 27th as a deadline to apply for a variance in Maplewood. Perhaps they were given another deadline for a CUP application. In any case, the deadlines have come and gone, and no application has been submitted.

CDRB Chair Linda Olsen was enraged as she heard about how Clear Channel not only ignored city ordinance in the first place, but has disregarded the city's request for a CUP application, even as the city has bent over backwards to give them a chance to explain themselves and make their case for why they should be given an exception from city codes. The board discussed whether the city should even cut the sign's power, as Minnetonka has done.

Ledvina offered a motion requesting that the city council direct staff to resolve this matter quickly, which the board unanimously approved.

Our city manager, Mr. Copeland, is on the record saying "the benefits of the technology outweighed the initial lack of information." I hope he doesn't feel the benefits of the technology mean that Maplewood should just let it go when a big corporation not only flouts our ordinances, but turns up its nose when we go the extra mile to try and work with them and still maintain the integrity of the law. If Mr. Copeland thinks our billboard ordinance is outdated, he should argue his case to the city council to change it.

In the meantime, I think we may have an assignment for our new code enforcement officer.

Edit, 5/9 12:31 PM: Maplewood Voices found another good link to a Maplewood Review article about the billboard.


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