Sacramento would sprout new digital billboards in Kings deal

The number of flashing digital billboards along Sacramento freeways could double as the result of a deal nearing completion between the city and the Sacramento Kings.

The plan will allow the Kings to erect six changeable-display signs over the next few years. It’s part of a larger agreement being negotiated between the city and the team’s owners to build a $448 million arena in Downtown Plaza.

City officials and the Sacramento Kings intend to finalize the overall arena deal in the next few weeks and bring it to the City Council for a vote May 13. City staff members working on the deal say they’ll deliver a public briefing at the April 22 council meeting. Last Thursday, the city Planning and Design Commission approved the arena design and hundreds of pages of planning and environmental documents. The commission vote was necessary before the council could move forward.

Kings officials say the colorfully lit billboards in visible locations will be used to promote the team, the arena and downtown. Tens of thousands of drivers will see electronic ads from team sponsors.

“The signage program is an integral part of the overall strategy to attract new energy, visitors, and economic activity to downtown Sacramento,” Kings President Chris Granger said in an email.

According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, an industry group, the number of digital boards along U.S. highways remains miniscule compared to traditional static billboards, but increased 20 percent to 4,900 last year.

Digital boards continue to create debate about safety and light pollution. Some drivers say they create a distraction and that their bright displays can produce a problematic glare at night.

In Sacramento County, residents in the River Oaks neighborhood this week are protesting a planned digital sign along Interstate 80 at West El Camino Avenue for the 49er Truck Stop, saying the board is too large, too high and too bright.

Industry leaders and local officials say steps have been taken in recent years to reduce the nuisance factor. Newer versions of the digital boards are programmed to dim at sunset to reduce the chance the lights will cause vision problems for drivers, city officials said.

The state Outdoor Advertising Act generally requires digital billboards along freeways to display messages for at least four seconds before switching to a new ad, an effort to reduce potential distractions. The law also requires digital signboards to be spaced at least 1,000 feet apart. Officials say those rules reduce distraction and limit billboard clutter.

There are now six major digital billboards along freeways in the city of Sacramento. Two of them, at Cal Expo and California State University, Sacramento, are on state property.

After studying a list of potential locations submitted by the Kings, Sacramento city staff said it’s likely to recommend approval of two sites on Business 80, two on Interstate 5, one on Highway 99 and one on Highway 50.

The two likely sites on Business 80 are at Sutter’s Landing Park and at Del Paso Regional Park/Haggin Oaks. City officials say they also will recommend billboards be allowed on I-5 near the airport and in the downtown railyard. Another site would be along Highway 50 and the Sacramento River near the Pioneer Bridge. The sixth site would be on Highway 99 at Calvine Road.

City officials and the Planning Commission have recommended the City Council reject a proposed site on I-5 near the city water tank at Meadowview Road. Staff members say they oppose a sign at that location because it would loom over the backyards of nearby residents. City officials also say they are recommending that the proposed billboard on I-5 in west Natomas be approved with only one viewable side, so that the board does not shine on a nearby residential area.

All six proposed billboard sites are on land owned by the city. City officials say they will lease the 25-foot square sites to the Kings for a nominal annual fee. They did not disclose the fee but said it amounts to allowing the Kings to use the land for essentially no cost.

Zoning changes and height code variances will be required for some of the signs, which will be more than 85 feet tall alongside several elevated freeways.

The city revealed the billboard arrangement a year ago when it published a conceptual arena partnership deal with the Kings. The billboards have since become one of several debated aspects of the deal.

Clear Channel, a national advertising firm that does business in Sacramento, said last year it felt it was entitled to those locations. Clear Channel declined comment this week on the latest plans. “In this instance, we wouldn’t want to speculate on the city’s business transactions,” spokesman Jason King said.

City officials have listed the city investment in the arena deal as $258 million, most of that from bonds the city will sell, backed by future downtown parking revenues. The city has not assigned any value to the proposed six billboard sites. City officials contend it costs the city nothing to allow the Kings to build billboards on the six small, vacant pieces of city land next to freeways. Officials said it could cost the Kings between $1 million and $2 million to construct each billboard.

“There is no cost to the city, and it does not constitute a capital contribution to the project,” Assistant City Manager John Dangberg said.

Critics say the city should publish how much money it could have made if it had instead rented those sites at full market rates to advertising companies. Dangberg said this week that such billboard sites rent for about $200,000 a year on the open market.

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