Anne Roberts: Test your civic savvy on Vancouver's handling of billboards

Test your civic savvy:

Question #1) Mayor Gregor Robertson and the Vision Vancouver councillors voted this week to do nothing to get rid of billboards in residential neighbourhoods because:  

a) Billboards disappear naturally over time anyway;
b) Billboards are so old technology councillors can’t even think about it;
c) Billboards could become the new neon and become collector items.
d) None of the above

Answer: Though Councillor Geoff Meggs did indeed suggest a), b) and c) as the reasons for not requiring billboard companies to finally conform with the city’s sign bylaw and take down their billboards within 60 metres of people’s homes, the correct answer is d) None of the above.

City staff had recommended that 313 billboards be removed to give relief to residents living near billboards that overshadowed their backyards, blocked views, and shone lights into bedroom windows.  

The billboards had been erected in the late '90s when companies exploited a loophole in the city’s bylaw to angle into residential areas on lanes and commercial lots.  

The intrusion set off massive campaign in 2000.  Neighbourhoods from Kensington Cedar-Cottage to Dunbar and Strathcona to Douglas Park lobbied city hall against the ugly commercialization of their public spaces.    

Residents active on CityPlan committees working to make their communities more attractive and their streets more pedestrian- and cycle-friendly were particularly angry to find monster billboards designed for highway use looming over the streetscape.

Ironically, it was a "business-friendly" NPA council that responded to residents’ concerns, stood up to billboard industry demands, and voted for a freeze on any further billboards in residential areas.  

Unfortunately, the city was required to grandfather existing billboards for five years.  Five years turned into eight while the city fought legal battles all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada over the billboard on the top of the Lee Building and the city's right to order its removal.

The city won, and then staff turned attention to the billboards in residential areas.

Question #2:   The Vision council decided they would rather do an in-depth study of Vancouver’s entire sign bylaw that would take at least two to three years and consume as yet undetermined amounts of staff time and resources because:

a) Billboards are so old technology and councillors are interested in new technologies;
b) Billboard companies can never be rich enough;
c) Billboard companies that have made millions of dollars from the grandfathered billboards contribute significant sums to election campaigns;
d) Taking out billboards would take too long (two to three years) and take staff resources better spent on in-depth sign by-law studies;
e) All of the above.

Answer:  I know. This test is too easy!

Only two people outside the billboard industry came to council to speak to the motion.  It turned out that the city had notified the billboard companies but not the residents.  

By the time a few people found out by word of mouth and through neighbourhood lists, it was already the day before the vote.  The billboard industry officials, on the other hand, had plenty of time to arrange  their schedules, to contact sympathetic groups, and to lobby council to heed their interests.    

It’s easy to promise open and transparent government during the election campaign.  It’s quite another thing to deliver it.  



Michael B

Dec 9, 2009 at 10:59am

Is there any zoning / oversight that applies to the new electronic monster billboard being erected at the south end of the Burrard Bridge?