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Nov. 7 - County Commissioners approve text amendment to zoning that will allow new digital billboards in unincorporated Chatham

PHOTO:  (L to R)  Ben Jones, co-ownerwith Dick Estus, left, of Golden Island Outdoor advertising, with Atty. Phillip McCorkle, their legal representative before the Chatham County Commission Friday.

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

November 7, 2014 – The effort by Golden Isles Outdoor advertising company, owned by Dick Estus of Savannah and Ben Jones of St. Simon Island, to amend the Zoning Ordinances of Chatham County to allow more digital billboards were successful Friday morning.

The Chatham County Commissioners, by a vote of 6 to 2, approved a text amendment that will allow digital billboard companies that do not have non-conforming boards in the County to apply to install new digital billboards in unincorporated areas.  All billboards will only be allowed in those zones that currently allow digital boards, such as B-1.  No other changes to the billboard requirements of the Zoning laws will be affected by the vote.

Back in 2010 – 2011, Lamar Outdoor billboard company, which wished to introduce digital billboards within both the City limits and across the Chatham County, negotiated a deal with City and County zoning officials - and then achieved the okay of the City Council and County Commission - that allowed any company with non- conforming billboards to install new digital boards IF they agreed to remove non-conforming boards at a ratio of 2 to 1 in footage.  

A non-conforming billboard is one that is too low to the ground based on current zoning regulations for billboards, or is in a residential zone where billboards are not allowed.  The stated goal at the time was to clean up blighted and unattractive boards, particularly on residential streets.  When new zoning regulations were enacted a number of years ago to control billboards, non-conforming use boards were grandfathered in.

Lamar Outdoor, which reportedly owns 95% of the billboards in Chatham County, was the chief proponent at the time.  They stood to benefit substantially, as they make much more revenue on a digital billboard which can carry the ad messages of multiple companies a day, and have very low production costs and no installation costs for the advertisers.

Companies advertising on a traditional billboard pay a monthly rental fee based on street traffic and an initial production cost, which is often in excess of $1,000.  There is no production cost for a digital ad on a digital board.

Further, traditional billboards are more and more difficult to rent for outdoor advertising companies, such as Lamar.

Estes’ position, through his attorney Phillip McCorkle of McCorkle & Johnson, LLP, who represented him Friday before the County County Commission, was that because he has no non-conforming billboards, he couldn’t qualify to install a digital billboard.

McCorke said that Estus and Jones have two locations in mind for digital boards, both in property zoned business or light industrial areas.  His Golden Isles Outdoor company currently has six billboards in total in Chatham County.

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