Sam Ribakoff

(CN) — On the last day of its monthly meetings Friday, the California Coastal Commission approved a bid by the city of Eureka to ban all new digital signs and billboards.

“I’m just delighted. We think they are really ugly,” said Michele McKeegan, the head of Keep Eureka Beautiful's tree project, a volunteer community advocacy group that supported the legislation. “They’re ugly. They flash and they’re often garish. People just don’t like them.”

Digital billboard signs are LED displays that can rapidly change the images they project.

According to the commission's report on the ordinance, there are seven digital signs along Eureka’s coast, some of which are visible from coastal trails.

“As digital signage in general can be distracting and visually incompatible with scenic coastal areas, the proposed IP amendment as submitted will ensure that no new digital signs will be developed that could detract from the scenic nature of the waterfront as viewed from scenic public vista points and waterfront walkways,” the report says.

The bill doesn’t ban digital signs and billboards outright, only the construction and installation of new ones.

McKeegan said the germ of the ordinance originally came out of a committee formed by Eureka’s former community development director, which included local business owners, McKeegan, and others.

The bill then went to the City Council, which passed a ban on digital signs and billboards from certain parts of the city and regulated the brightness of the signs. Because Eureka is on the Pacific coast and the ordinance would change zoning policy, the California Coastal Commission — the state agency assigned to protect and conserve the state’s coastline — had to sign off.

Not only did the commission approve Eureka's ordinance, it asked the city to go farther and enact a complete ban on new digital billboards and signs across the city. The city agreed, passed the amended ordinance and sent it to the commission for approval.

Along with banning new digital signs and billboards, the ordinance also forces the existing billboards to only contain static messages and only transition from one message to another instantly, without any transitional effects like fading out. The ads on the digital billboards can’t change more than once every 15 seconds, and they have to conform to both the city’s brightness standards, and the International Dark-Sky Associations brightness standards.

“What we need are trees in our community, not digital billboards, street trees,” McKeegan said.

Jennifer Kalt, the executive director of Humboldt Baykeeper, a coastal resources advocacy group, said the signs are also dangerous.

“The digital signs are more of an issue of light pollution and safety hazards, particularly on a quite dangerous stretch of US 101 that lacks pedestrian and cycling features,” Kalt wrote in an emailed statement. “We certainly applaud the city for being proactive about this, although it should have been done years ago.”

When asked to explain the process the city had to go through to enact the ordinance, Eureka’s City Manager Miles Slattery just laughed.

“A bureaucratic nightmare is what it is,” Slattery said, adding it can take six months or longer to get zoning or other new ordinances passed and enacted since the coastal commission only meets once a month, and their ordinance might not find its way immediately onto the next agenda.

Slattery said that while sometimes the views and legislative efforts of the city and the coastal commission — and commission members themselves — clash, especially given the commission's dual mandates to both protect the coastline and make public access to the coastline easier, the city and most Eurekans wanted the ban.

“A lot of people don’t like us looking like the Las Vegas Strip,” Slattery said, as opposed to the aesthetic of the old Victorian style houses in the community, even though the digital billboards in town are all for local businesses.

Slattery said Mike Wilson, the North Coast representative on the commission and a Humboldt County supervisor, was one of the main advocates for the ban.

During Friday's meeting, Wilson was the only representative who spoke on the ordinance and thanked Eureka for passing it.