Billboards on a Court Street building in downtown Watertown. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — The state won’t allow local businessman Jake Johnson to convert two billboards on top of his Court Street business to digital signs.

The state Department of Transportation says the two digital billboards would violate the federal Highway Beautification Act. The DOT controls outdoor advertising along Route 3 and in the downtown business district.

Since Arsenal Street and Route 3 are part of the state’s scenic byway, digital billboards would not be allowed, said consultant Lisa Nagle, who was retained to work on draft billboard legislation for the city.

Mr. Johnson, who didn’t attend Monday’s meeting and couldn’t be reached for comment on Tuesday, wanted to convert the two billboards on 104 Court St. to LED signs because it would have been a money maker for him.

The subject of the two billboards came up during a City Council work session on Monday night. Council members discussed whether LED billboards can be used in Watertown.

“Some can, some can’t,” said Michael A. Lumbis, the city’s planning and community development director.

Consultants Ms. Nagle, of Elan Planning, Design and Landscape in Saratoga Springs, and attorney Lawrence Howard, who attended the work session, talked about how the state deals with digital billboards.

The state DOT has a series of rules that billboard owners must follow, Ms. Nagle said.

Council members were told that Mr. Johnson could only have digital billboards if they advertised businesses in the Court Street building and not for any other “off-premise” businesses.

DOT officials said it might not be economically feasible to use digital billboards for on-premise businesses, the consultant said.

“That’s where you make your money, if you advertise for off-premise businesses,” she said.

The Highway Beautification Act was prompted in 1965 when there was a proliferation of billboards in the country and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson wanted to limit them.

Billboards along the scenic byway must be registered with the DOT. A state official drives along the scenic byway each year to inspect billboards to make sure they are following state regulations. If deemed illegal by the state, they are removed.

During Monday night’s discussion, Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith mentioned that the owner of Big Apple Music installed a digital sign just a few hundred yards from Mr. Johnson’s building, and the DOT did not intervene.

But city Senior Planner Jennifer Voss pointed out that the Big Apple sign is not a billboard, so it’s allowed on Arsenal Street.

Digital billboards — also known as “Electronic Messaging Centers,” or EMCs — are allowed along Interstate 81, Ms. Nagle said.

Council members unanimously agreed to allow electronic billboards at seven existing locations that are not along the scenic byway. They took no action on Monday night on the draft legislation, but city staff and the consultants were instructed to finalize details on the size of the LED billboards and their brightness.

In January, Mayor Smith said the city planned to ignore the DOT rules that would put a stop to Mr. Johnson’s two digital billboards, but the city then learned how strict the state was in regard to billboards along the scenic byway.

In fact, the state could lose federal funding if it violated the federal law regarding scenic highways.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(2) comments

Pat Luppens

Would not bright, animated signs be a dangerous distraction for drivers, especially in that area where the traffic system is "messy"? In fact were not the billboard laws enacted to to avoid driver distraction?


Never been to any large city in Asia? They’re all over and in cities much, much larger than Watertown.

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