by Lisa Sorg
It wasn’t the dozen pairs of blinking sunglasses or the parade of nonprofit groups pleading their cases, but a photo of the R. Kelly Bryant Jr. Bridge that may have made the biggest impact on the Durham City Council’s vote on digital billboards.
The graceful pedestrian bridge, which spans N.C. 147, serves as the eastern gateway to Durham and joins northern and southern neighborhoods that had been fractured by the highway. And posted near one of its ends is a billboard advertising the Dixie Gun & Knife Show happening this weekend in Raleigh.
The clash of these two landmarks underscored public and council concerns about the impact of digital billboards on aesthetics and property values—without any proven benefits to offset these social and financial costs. After more than three hours of public hearing and discussion, Durham City Council voted unanimously, 7-0, to keep the current billboard ordinance, which prohibits digital billboards.
Councilmembers had received more than 1,000 e-mails from the public in favor of keeping the current ordinance, which does not allow digital billboards. Less than 10 e-mails asked for a change to permit them.
"This issue has united Durham like no other," said Councilman Mike Woodard, shortly before voting to keep the current ordinance.
One of the 1,000 e-mails was from the bridge's namesake, who asked that Council keep the current ordinance.
"What are we going to do about that billboard?" asked Councilman Howard Clement.
Lewis Cheek, an attorney for K&L Gates, the firm representing Fairway Outdoor Advertising, noted erroneously that only by changing the ordinance could that billboard come down.
Councilwoman Diane Catotti contradicted Cheek, noting that the billboard could indeed be dismantled under the current ordinance—it just couldn’t be replaced.
"Durham has nothing to gain from [the change]," Catotti added.
The Indy will publish a longer piece in Wednesday;s paper analyzing the two-year fight over billboards. It will also be posted on indyweek.com.