A proposal to construct a 75-foot electronic billboard adjacent to Highway 101 has drawn the ire of some Gilroy residents, including others from outside of the city, who say its bright lights would not only serve as a distraction to passing motorists, but also damage the city’s rural nature.
Some business owners, however, argue that the billboard will help bring more people into Gilroy, boosting tax revenues that support city services, while also providing a highly visible location to alert the public of an emergency, something that could have been useful when Highway 101 flooded earlier in January.
But before the billboard gets a final consideration from the Gilroy City Council, it must continue a lengthy process that began in 2018, which includes creating a new zoning ordinance to allow such a project.
The process had a slight delay on Jan. 19, when the Gilroy Planning Commission, on a 4-3 vote, agreed to table its discussion on the ordinance to Feb. 2 to allow the commissioners more time to digest the more than 500 pages on the proposal.
Commissioners Manny Bhandal, Joan Lewis and Kelly Ramirez voted against delaying their decision, which will be only a recommendation for or against the ordinance, as the city council has the final say.
A report concluded earlier in 2022 that the billboard would have less than significant impacts on the environment.
In late 2020, the council directed staff to update the city’s code related to signs, which has various height and text restrictions for those located near the freeway.
Outfront Media’s proposal to the city prompted the discussion. The company, on behalf of landowner Mike Conrotto, seeks to construct an electronic billboard that reaches 75 feet tall, positioned on the 6400 block of Automall Parkway, which is currently used for truck trailer parking.
The display on the sign would not be allowed to change more often than every eight seconds, according to a study completed by FirstCarbon Solutions, while an illuminated “Welcome to Gilroy” sign would be installed at the top of the column above the billboard.
The draft ordinance under review would permit 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.
The study, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), considered various factors, such as aesthetics, cultural resources and air quality, and determined that there would not be any “significant effects” from the project.
In front of the planning commission for its recommendation was only the report, known as a Mitigated Negative Declaration, and the draft ordinance, not the actual billboard proposal itself, which would come back at a later date, according to Customer Service Manager Cindy McCormick.
“Approval of the CEQA document does not constitute approval of the proposed billboard,” she said.
Conrotto said the auto dealerships clustered around Automall Parkway approached him about placing the sign on his property, as having it constructed outside of dealership property would prove more cost-effective.
Dealership representatives submitted a signed document to the city indicating their support of the project. Conrotto added that statistics show similar billboards have resulted in a 10% increase in sales for businesses who advertise.
Jeff McCuen of Outfront Media said 16 spots will be available on the billboard, with eight on each side. He added that the digital nature of the billboard allows for flexibility in terms of duration and advertising costs.
But some have questioned whether mom-and-pop establishments will be able to afford such a placement, or be pushed aside by national companies with deep pockets.
Commissioner Annedore Kushner said she wasn’t convinced the billboard would be feasible for small businesses.
“I can very easily see national companies who have tons of marketing money completely dominating that space,” she said.
Kushner added that similar digital billboards she’s seen in the San Francisco Bay Area are distracting for motorists.
“That’s the whole point,” she said. “They are supposed to attract attention. To say that there’s no impact strikes me as ridiculous.”
Ramirez said she was surprised the proposal did not generate comments from groups such as the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce, Gilroy Downtown Business Association and the Gilroy Premium Outlets.
“That lack of a voice speaks volumes to me,” she said.