Digital billboard along S.C. 170 lights up night, raises eyebrows

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Digital billboard along S.C. 170 lights up night, raises eyebrows

By MICHAEL WELLES SHAPIRO mshapiro@islandpacket.com 843-706-8142
Published Thursday, March 6, 2008 in The Island Packet  |  543 Words  |  news/local

As one drives through Okatie along S.C. 170 at night, it's hard to miss the digital billboard that cropped up on the Jasper County side of the road in January.
At first glance, the sign displays a natural gas ad with a woman showering. Then a cowboy hat-wearing spokesman touts YellaWood, followed by an American Heart Association campaign. The colors pop with each new image.
The light-emitting diode, or LED, billboard installed in January seems out of place for some Beaufort County residents accustomed to the area's dark skies and subdued commercial presence.
Hilton Head Island's Steve Wilson said he first noticed the billboard driving home late one afternoon as the sun was setting.
"You can see the thing for a long way," he said Tuesday.
Wilson, who volunteers on a Beaufort County board formed to maintain the area's Lowcountry look, called the billboard an eyesore.
"It's something that we definitely don't want to have along any of our corridors," he said. "And I'd like to see (all) billboards pretty much eliminated."
Jon Kane, area general manager for Adams Outdoor Advertising, which operates the digital billboard, said those complaining about digital signs overlook their benefits: Local governments can flash public service announcements on the billboard during a hurricane evacuation or if a child goes missing.
"Folks call up and say, 'Oh, I saw this big TV screen,' but this TV screen can save a 3-year-old's life," Kane said.
Adams, which has headquarters in Atlanta and is the operator of most of the billboards on S.C. 170, has lobbied other local governments, including Beaufort County and Port Royal, to allow it to replace existing billboards with digital ones.
Bluffton, Hilton Head and Beaufort County all have stringent rules that prohibit digital billboards, as well as traditional signs. Traditional billboards up in southern Beaufort County were grandfathered in when tighter rules were implemented.
Jasper County has been less restrictive, and has benefited financially. There are about 60 outdoor advertisements placed along S.C. 170 between U.S. 278 and the Broad River, all of them in Jasper County. Renty Kitty, Jasper County's business license coordinator, said the signs in the county bring in about $50,000 annually in billboard license fees.
Kevin Fry, president of Scenic America, a group that opposes billboard advertising, said in addition to being "an aesthetic catastrophe," digital billboards are also potentially distracting to drivers.
Comparing the digital signs, with their constantly changing ads, to a slide show, he said, "Any normally curious person is drawn to see what comes up next."
Fry argued that more research needs to be performed on digital billboards and their potential to increase driving accidents before local governments allow any more of them.
Jasper County administrator Andrew Fulgham said Tuesday that his county is considering a moratorium on any more digital signs until officials have time to study their safety.
Kane called a moratorium unnecessary and pointed to two 2007 studies commissioned by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, a group that lobbies for looser regulations for billboards.
Scenic America's Web site calls those studies biased and flawed, and argues a "definitive" study on digital billboards had yet to be published.