Sept. 18, 2018
By Arianne Robinson
An application for a digital billboard as tall as a story of a building (4.27 metres) and as wide as five parking spaces (14.63 metres) was rejected at the Sign Variance Committee on Tuesday. As common as it is for mics not to turn on, digital sign applications also get rejected, and that is what the four-member committee did regarding the billboard at 3 Bestobell Rd. located south of the Gardiner between Hwy 427 and Kipling Ave.
The total size of the proposed billboard, about 63 square metres, is actually the standard billboard size for the big digital signs in the area. All but one of these signs were approved before the new stricter era of digital sign approval came into play at Toronto City Hall. The one exception is the digital sign at the Ontario Food Terminal which was largely argued at the committee meeting in 2016 on the merits of the community contribution that would be made as a result of the sign, despite the Chair reminding the committee that there are nine criteria that need to be met for a variance to the bylaw, and economic reasons are not among them.
Outgoing Councillor Janet Davis came to the committee on Tuesday to speak out against the billboard application, which, if built, would sit 6.5 metres away from the Gardiner Expressway (the bylaw does not allow signs within 400 metres) and is within a close enough range (read: people don’t want) to people’s homes.
In an interview after the meeting, Davis called the application “one of the most egregious” examples of how the sign bylaw could be violated.
“The request to have digital signs allowed in the employment areas and the railway corridors have come from people who want to be able to monetize the value of their property, and I’m sorry but public space should not be monetized.
“This is our space. Public space. It should not be full of commercial messaging and bright distracting digital signs,” Davis said.
The owner of the property where the billboard would sit did not speak at the committee – nor did anyone from Permit World (the applicant on record), who according to a source, attempted to withdraw the application the night before it was heard by committee.
Jamie Ally from Almon Equipment spoke on behalf of the application for the billboard which he said would have little or no impact to the residential buildings nearby. He did acknowledge the size of the sign is very big, but said it was necessary in order justify building it.
“We did try to reduce the size and height. However, calculating the distance from the westbound traffic, we found that this is the only standard size billboard that would be commercially viable.”
The calculation for the value of a sign on the highway has to do with the length of time it would be viewed. Ally said in his comments to the committee that the first viewing point for the westbound drivers would be 400 metres away. So if a driver was travelling at a speed of 100 kilometers an hour, the total viewing time would be 11.7 seconds. Ally said this is “the minimum to avoid difficulty in reading the sign,” and so while they could place the sign lower than the proposed height of 15.24 metres (three-and-a-half storeys), they could not change the size.
The public safety issue – that is how much digital billboards distract drivers – is the ongoing debate at Toronto Council regarding signs, and often gets pitted against arguments from property owners (and city councillors) who support the signs.
“[Digital light on billboards] poses a public safety risk,” Davis said after the committee’s decision. “I don’t believe that the people of Toronto want to see digital signs in their faces all across this city, and this one was being supported by the local councillor [Mark Grimes] which is inexplicable to me. It is not in the public interest and he should have been opposing it. I have to question what the motivations are around these sign approvals and what relationships exist.”
Grimes was not at the Committee on Tuesday but sent a letter in July that said he supports the sign, his office received no concerns or objections with regards to the application and that it “will have no negative impact on the community or the existing streetscape, as there a number of other similar signs present.” He could not be reached on Tuesday to say whether their office had received any concerns since his letter in July. However, the CBC’s John Lancaster and Michael Smee did note concerns from nearby residents.
At the committee, Ally implored the members to consider granting the variances based on who would benefit.
“In closing I’d like to say the owner of this property has been in the community for decades. They are seeking to lift the appearance of this stretch of highway. They are a printing business and as you may know the industry is in decline so they’re seeking ways to generate new revenues… It is our custom on our existing billboard and on this one to donate some time to advertising community events and local charities.
“We believe this project will improve the area, providing revenue to the land owner, provide some free local community advertising.”
In response to this particular point, Davis addressed the idea of community benefits being a reason for billboards in her own deputation.
“I find it very concerning that when these applicants come forward they talk about how they’re going to donate time or money to the local community if they get their signs approved. It has continued to be, I think, a real problem. These sign companies are bribing local communities in different ways and I think that’s totally unacceptable. It violates our donations policy and has to be stopped.”