Gilroy may soon allow two digital billboards to pop up along Highway 101 — a move some residents, environmentalists and astronomers aren’t too happy about.
Digital advertising company Outfront Media and property owner Mike Conrotto want to build a billboard that would tower 75 feet on Conrotto’s land on the 6400 block of Automall Parkway. After the city’s planning commission denied their proposal, Outfront Media and Conrotto filed an appeal.
On Monday evening, the Gilroy City Council will make the final decision.
Residents concerned about the digital billboards complain they would be a distraction for drivers, add to light pollution, compete with local businesses and change Gilroy’s rural landscape. But Outfront Media and Conrotto assert the jumbo signs could be a boom for local businesses and tax revenue and “would not compromise the city’s culture and small-town quality.”
In a Feb. 10 letter to the council, Conrotto said denying the appeal would have a “significant impact on my property and the local business community and jeopardizes job growth and millions of dollars in revenue for all local businesses.” Around 80 local businesses signed a petition in support of the digital billboards.
A representative from Outfront Media could not be reached for comment.
Connie Rogers, who has been living in Gilroy for more than five decades, said digital billboards belong in more urbanized areas. Even though the city has a population nearing 60,000, she said it still very much has a rural landscape.
“The city has invested a fair amount of money into the California welcome center and Visit Gilroy, and the image that they’re trying to promote is we have golf courses and the wine trail and we have Gilroy Gardens and healthy activities,” she said. “An electronic billboard just doesn’t seem to fit that vision.”
Ahead of last month’s planning commission meeting, the city received 60 comments about the billboards, with 55 of them opposing the digital signs.
Several environmental organizations, like the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and Lick Observatory, also have concerns about the digital billboards and the growing impact light pollution has on the Bay Area.
Light pollution can dysregulate some birds and nocturnal animals, disrupt humans’ circadian rhythms and increase the risk of other health problems, such as diabetes and breast cancer, according to the International Dark-Sky Association.
Paul Lynam, an astronomer at Lick Observatory, said that while the billboards won’t shut down the more than 100-year-old observatory’s operations, it will make it more difficult for them to gaze upon the night sky.
“Billboards contribute disproportionally to the acceleration of light pollution in the Bay Area that we have been seeing over the past several decades mainly because of the change to LED technology,” Lynam said. “The other trend we’ve seen is that throughout the settlements, particularly in the South Bay along the 101 corridor, we’ve seen an erosion of the previous decade-long bans on the introduction of new billboards.”
Lynam and other environmentalists have pleaded with the city to no avail to make certain changes to the proposal, like requiring the billboards to be turned off in the middle of the night.
Gilroy isn’t the first city in the South Bay to see pushback about digital billboards.
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Last year, the San Jose City Council allowed Clear Channel Outdoor to add two digital billboards along Highway 101 north of the Highway 87 interchange on property owned by the Mineta San Jose International Airport.
The city previously had a billboard ban that went into effect in 1985. But in 2018, the council voted to end that ban when it said new billboards could go up on city-owned property downtown and near the airport. A 2021 city-sponsored survey found that 93% of residents who participated in it objected to digital billboards.
If Gilroy’s council denies the billboard appeal on Monday, Conrotto and Outfront Media will have to wait another year before reapplying.