The Lexington-Fayette County Planning Commission is considering a Zoning Ordinance Text Amendment (ZOTA) that would permit digital signs in the downtown civic center zone (B-2B zone) for theaters. The “theater” in question is for a structure at the corner of High Street and South Broadway but could impact other downtown neighborhoods in the future because of the precedent and the proximity of the B-2B zone to urban neighborhoods. Once in place it could be amended to apply to additional uses, not just theaters. These are “signs,” not billboards, and promote an onsite facility, not general off-site advertising. The future is unpredictable, but the FCNC sees a trend toward more digital signage. Problems include potential traffic safety issues as well as nuisance characteristics like lights, movement, size, height, proximity to residences, and so forth. See below the initial FCNC letter to the Planning Commission regarding the proposed change in the B-2B zone to allow theatre digital signage.
For rural areas, there’s another ZOTA under consideration in the Planning Commission that would allow a soccer stadium to become a principal use in the Economic Development (ED) zone. The facility, near Russell Cave Road, could include lights, speakers, signs, seating, and parking and would not require a roof.
Another soccer complex in the same vicinity, this one before the Board of Adjustment and not in the ED zone, would permit the development of numerous soccer fields and 750 parking spaces.
The notice requirements for ZOTAs are minimal so things can change without a lot of public involvement or knowledge. However, unlike zone changes, you are able to discuss ZOTAs with your Council Member who must grant final approval.
Thanks for engaging with the FCNC, See below.
Walt Gaffield, President
Fayette County Neighborhood Council, Inc.
May 25, 2022
Chair Larry Forester
Members of the Lexington-Fayette Planning Commission
200 East Main Street
Lexington, KY 40507
Re: Proposed Text Amendment to Article 17
Dear Chair Forrester and Members of the Commission:
The Fayette County Neighborhood Council has been engaged in signage and billboard regulation in Fayette County for what seems to be an almost constant, recurring, basis, most recently with the Urban County Council. FCNC has several comments and supports the intent of the traffic engineering and planning staff alternative text.
Public safety is the most important consideration. The National Center for Transportation Systems Productivity and Management and the Alabama and Florida Departments of Transportation funded a study in 2017 entitled Digital Billboards and Traffic Safety Risks. Obviously, the proposed ZOTA under consideration does not concern billboards. However, the 2017 study does deal with the length of time a static image dwells before being changed, the number or complexity of images on the digital field, and distraction and traffic safety. The study showed that crashes were more severe in areas with digital signage and that younger drivers were more likely to pay attention to digital signs for longer periods of time while not slowing down. Crash rates were 29% higher in digital-signage-influenced areas in Alabama and 25% higher in Florida. Similarly, digital signs “evoked significantly more attention” from drivers than static signs. Sixty-eight percent (68%) of Alabama drivers in digital sign areas found them “more distracting” than static signs, and only 12% saw no difference. The intent of advertising is to draw attention to a product and to distract. Digital signs have the capacity to change messages, and the greater the number of changes the more likely that drivers will not have their eyes (and minds) on the road.
The Comprehensive Plan
Based on the 2018 Comprehensive Plan and On the Table for the 2023 Comprehensive Plan, people in Lexington believe that walking and expanded bicycling opportunities are both important and desirable. The Civic Center area and downtown promises to have increasing bicycle and walking traffic given the Town Branch Trail and Park and other developments in the vicinity, including the newly announced Lincoln Webb LLC proposal for a large mixed use development adjacent to the Civic Center. The applicant’s proposal would make the area more dangerous for walkers and bicyclists. Students returning to campus from our downtown bars through an area where drivers are looking at changing digital messages is not a good idea.
It does not make sense to be able to change digital messages “every eight seconds.” Traffic Engineering and Planning staff recommend 45 seconds. The answer should not be taking the staff recommendation of 45 seconds, adding the applicant’s suggestion of 8 seconds, and dividing it by 2 to arrive at 26.5 seconds. How long a digital message needs to remain static should have a basis in an independent professional standard . Unfortunately most sign standards come from the sign industry itself. Bicycles and pedestrians are smaller and harder to see than other vehicles so limiting distractions is especially important. The staff estimate of 45 seconds is more accurate than the eight (8) seconds the applicant has agreed to accept and almost certainly needs to be higher.
Digital Signs at Night
The staff report is correct that “the B-2, B-2A, and B-2B zones all include residential land uses and hotel land uses” and that “changing images or messages throughout the night can be detrimental to the neighboring properties and can negatively affect the Lexington community and visitors.” FCNC strongly supports the staff recommendation that stipulates, “The marquee sign shall not display messages or be illuminated when the use is closed.” The number of “nits” for maximum luminance is a professional judgment even though many of the studies on the subject come directly from the sign industry. Professional judgments should not be open to compromise. Staff is also correct in prohibiting blinking lights, moving or scrolling messages, special effects, or animations. All such features are either distracting or a nuisance, or both.
Neighborhoods Adjacent to the B-2B Zone
One of the unfortunate aspects of a Zoning Ordinance Text Amendment is that once it becomes an Ordinance, similarly situated businesses can claim an ability to do the same thing by right. FCNC believes that neighborhoods near the B-2B Zone have no idea what is under consideration for digital signs or that it might impact them. Notice needs to be much more timely and widespread before passage. Processes may be legal but still not be good public policy. FCNC does not believe that all possible locations for digital signs should be by right in the B-2B Zone.
Digital Sign Dimensions and Locations
The applicant’s recommendation to tie the size of digital signs to the number of screens would lead to a much larger digital sign than necessary. An entertainment area with movie screens and bowling alleys should have smaller digital signs than a Convention Center. FCNC sees no specific restrictions as to height or the distance between a residential property or zone in either the applicant’s proposal or the staff recommended version. That, among other things, needs to be corrected for the Planning Commission to consider approval.
All zoning sets precedent, and FCNC believes an effort to flood areas with digital signs and billboards without restrictions will continue until cellphones and personal devices make them largely obsolete. The Planning Commission should be cautious in approving digital signage because if a public need exists to remove signs, legal precedent exists for the government to be liable to sign owners for past, present, and future revenues and costs. The cost of compensation can be quite high running to as much as six (6) or seven (7) figures. In addition, what would happen if the applicant changes the use of the structure or sold it to another owner who changed the use? Would the digital sign stay in place? Would the continued use be a legal issue? Will restrictions erode through continued pressure from the sign industry to make digital signs even more objectionable?
FCNC sees too many questions and problems with the proposed ZOTA and recommends that the Planning Commission reject it. At the same time, staff made a significant professional effort to improve what initially was a completely unacceptable proposal. The Planning Commission should be mindful that Lexington has an image that can be explained by the difference between Keeneland and Pimlico in Baltimore and other commercially run racetracks. Care is necessary to protect our identity and design features both within and outside the Urban Services Boundary.
Walt Gaffield, President
Fayette County Neighborhood Council, Inc.
cc: FCNC Board of Directors
FCNC Neighborhood List
Urban County Council