Driver safety and visual appeal trumped the threat of lawsuits Monday, as the City of Coquitlam waded into murky legal territory by upholding a long-standing ban on large third- party signage.
Council narrowly voted down a staff recommendation to amend the city’s sign bylaw to allow for large advertisements — similar to billboards — to be placed at three points in south Coquitlam near Highway 1 and Lougheed Highway.
Couns. Craig Hodge, Neal Nicholson, Mae Reid and Mayor Richard Stewart voted against the recommendation, which results in the city upholding its original bylaw banning those types of ads.
“I have always been opposed to the idea of having billboards in our community,” Stewart said. “I think it’s one of those good aspects of our community that we don’t currently have that kind of third-party advertising. It troubles me that we’re heading down this path.”
Staff’s recommendation called for modern, digital billboards to be placed near King Edward Avenue, Schoolhouse Street and near the Cape Horn Interchange. The signs would have been restricted to a maximum of just under nine metres vertically, and 7.5 metres horizontally.
“A continued prohibition does not address an unmet business need for this type of business advertising and desire for commercial expression,” a staff report notes.
The issue first came to light in 2009, when CBS Outdoor and the Canadian Pacific Railway applied to install those types of ads at 18 locations across the city. Those opposed to amending the bylaw said the billboards represent a distraction to drivers and serve as visual pollution.
Coun. Brent Asmundson, a bus driver by trade, countered the driver distraction argument.
“There [are] many things that can distract a driver when driving and I don’t see these billboards as being a distraction or causing accidents,” he said.
Further muddying the issue is a handful of court cases in Ontario in which the legal system ruled that outright bans on third-party signage represent a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Several councillors suggested that continuing to uphold the ban could land the city in court.
“We do not have a choice, really, in this matter unless we want to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars in legal fees and expenses because these companies will take us to court if we don’t deal with this issue — they’ve told us that,” Asmundson said.
The spectre of legal action didn’t dissuade Nicholson, who suggested that companies that threaten the city with a lawsuit could potentially alienate their clientele.
“I think it’s for us to send a clear message to the advertisers: we speak for the people of the City of Coquitlam, and I don’t believe the people of the City of Coquitlam want these billboards,” he said.
“I think the advertisers may challenge us. I think they do that at their peril, because then they’re saying that their opinion is more important than the opinions of the people that many of them are trying to sell to.”
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