The Gilroy City Council rejected a proposal March 20 that would have allowed two digital billboards along Highway 101.
On a 4-3 vote, the council denied an appeal by property owner Mike Conrotto and billboard company Outfront Media, who sought the governing body’s approval after the planning commission on Feb. 2 voted against the ordinance change.
Mayor Marie Blankley and Councilmembers Rebeca Armendariz, Tom Cline and Zach Hilton voted to deny the appeal.
Outfront Media, on behalf of Conrotto, sought to construct an electronic billboard that stands 75 feet tall, positioned on the 6400 block of Automall Parkway, which is currently used for truck trailer parking.
But before a permit for the project can be considered, the city must modify its zoning ordinance, which currently prohibits digital billboards.
The draft ordinance would have allowed two electronic billboards in the city, and only within 600 feet of Highways 101 and 152, in zoning districts that cover the Gilroy Premium Outlets and shopping centers around Camino Arroyo.
With the denial, Conrotto and Outfront Media must wait a year before applying again.
More than 20 people spoke during the meeting, with a little more than half in favor of the billboard. Before the meeting, Conrotto submitted eight letters of support along with a petition signed by more than 80 business owners and residents, stating that the billboard would increase traffic to local establishments and boost the city’s revenue stream.
The opposition to the billboard has also been vocal, and as of Feb. 2, city officials received 60 comments about the project, with 55 opposed to it. Opponents say the bright lights of the billboard will serve as a distraction to passing motorists, and such a billboard would hurt Gilroy’s “small town” feel.
Others questioned whether local small businesses would have the financial means to advertise on the billboard, or be pushed aside by national brands.
Rob Shilling of Outfront Media said the company would reserve one spot on each side of the billboard for a local advertiser, at a rate of $500 per week.
“I can assure you that is unbelievably fair,” he said. “We will guarantee that, and we will put it in the contract if we have to.”
Blankley said she felt a decision to approve the ordinance change would be a “cart before the horse” situation, adding that although the billboard has been discussed since 2018, only recently have a relatively few local businesses shown support for it.
“There just isn’t enough business support showing to establish a likelihood that Gilroy businesses will fill the sign even 51% of the time,” she said, noting that advertisers could attract people outside of Gilroy. “That’s what I would like to have seen, with the horse in front of the cart, instead of the other way around.”
Both Armendariz and Cline said they were finding it difficult to make their decisions.
“This has been a really hard balance to strike, given the support from some of our small businesses and our car dealers that are so important to our economy,” Armendariz said. “But we are also here to represent the voices who aren’t here, to speak for the environment, for our wildlife and overall character of our community.”
Councilmember Carol Marques pointed out that the 75-foot sign would not be the tallest in the city, noting that the Garlic Farm sign across the highway from the proposed site stands at 90 feet tall, while another one in the works, at 80 feet, was recently approved by the council for a new development at the corner of 10th and Chestnut streets.
“We need money for Gilroy,” she said. “If we have an opportunity to earn this kind of money for the City of Gilroy, I feel we would be really foolish to deny it. We would be hurting our citizens.”
Conrotto said that statistics show similar billboards have resulted in a 10% increase in sales for businesses who advertise.
City Administrator Jimmy Forbis said that it is unknown how revenues would be impacted in the city if the billboard was constructed, as everything is “speculative” at this point. He did note that the auto dealerships are the top sales tax generator in Gilroy, with 1% of the 9.25% sales tax for each new vehicle sold going to the city’s coffers.
Councilmember Fred Tovar said he’s heard from many businesses imploring the city to “do something” to help them succeed.
“We’ve got businesses that are struggling,” he said. “This is a way to generate more business, more tax revenue.”