A split Gilroy Planning Commission voted against an ordinance Feb. 2 that could add two digital billboards in the city.
Property owner Mike Conrotto, who applied for the change to the city’s zoning ordinance to allow such structures, now has 20 days to appeal to the City Council, which has the final say on the matter.
Outfront Media, on behalf of 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.
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 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.
A recently completed 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 study, known as a Mitigated Negative Declaration, and the draft ordinance, not the actual billboard proposal itself, which would come back at a later date if the ordinance is approved, according to Customer Service Manager Cindy McCormick.
However, a majority of the commission recommended the council not adopt the report. Commissioners Stefanie Elle, Annedore Kushner, Adriana Leongardt and Kelly Ramirez voted against the recommendation.
On a separate vote, the commission was again split on recommending the ordinance. Commissioners Manny Bhandal, Joan Lewis and Michelle Montez were outvoted in their support of the ordinance.
Elle said the language of the proposed ordinance didn’t go far enough to prevent certain types of advertising, such as for cannabis businesses or political statements.
The ordinance, as written, only prohibits “any statements or words of an obscene, indecent or immoral character,” which Elle said leaves it wide open for interpretation.
“We can do better to clearly identify what we want and don’t want to see on a billboard like this,” she said.
City Attorney Andy Faber said each billboard allowed in the proposed ordinance, if the city receives permits for them, would have to go through planning commission and city council approval first to hammer out an agreement with more specific details.
Some members of the commission also questioned whether small, local businesses would be able to afford placement on the sign, or be pushed out by national corporations with the financial means to do so.
When questioned about pricing, Jeff McCuen of Outfront Media said the company does not have a strict fee structure, but rather, advertising costs are based on a variety of factors, such as length of time and the billboard’s location.
“We make it affordable for everybody,” he said. “We’re very flexible on price.”
Conrotto said the digital nature of the sign allows flexibility for businesses to advertise for as little or as much as they want. Local organizations could also promote upcoming events in Gilroy to attract visitors to the city, he noted, while the sign may also be used for emergency alerts.
McCormick said city officials received 60 comments about the project, with 55 opposed to it.
The Feb. 2 meeting drew 10 speakers from the public, including three from the “No Digital Billboards in San Jose” group, urging the commission to deny the proposal.
On the local side, Michelle Nelson of Gilroy said billboards have been banned in states such as Vermont and Hawaii because they detract from the natural landscape.
“People don’t visit those states for the beauty of advertising,” she said, adding that billboards add another distraction to drivers already preoccupied with their cell phones.
Jeff Orth, chair of the Gilroy Downtown Business Association board, said his small survey of downtown business owners revealed 60% were in favor of the billboard.
“As a business owner, I’m in favor of this sign, because I believe it will certainly drive business to Gilroy, even for those who are unable to afford sign time,” he said. “It’s important to at least advance this to the city council so we can further discussions.”
In other commission action on signs, the planners unanimously recommended a modification for a new commercial development already approved at the intersection of East Tenth and Chestnut streets.
Now known as “Plaza Allium,” the project was approved by the council in 2021, and the Chestnut Square shopping center on the property was demolished in 2022.
Under the original approval, the developers were allowed to install a 75-foot sign that advertises the businesses in the center. However, it was later determined that the bottom half of the sign would not be visible to Highway 101 travelers, so developer Evergreen Development Company is now proposing an 80-foot sign with a slightly different design.
For comparison, the Garlic Farm sign along Highway 101 stands at 90 feet, while further north, the Gilroy Crossing sign is 65 feet.
The sign will now go to the council for final approval.