Looking at protecting Mt. Rose Highway, the Reno City Council unanimously agreed to a new narrowly targeted regulation to allow only gas station prices to be displayed digitally in areas where digital signs have been prohibited historically as long as the signs change or flip only once an hour.

Scenic Nevada supported the text amendment approved Wednesday, Aug. 14 because it included the one-hour flip time we proposed, prohibits flashing, video or motion and has one of the lowest nighttime brightness levels in the nation.

Digital signs, including remotely changing ads sometimes with video and scrolling, are allowed in most commercial Reno zones without any flip time limits. And various gas stations in those areas around town have the digital price signs. But, they are prohibited in Neighborhood Commercial and Industrial zones and also within 300 feet of Mt. Rose Highway and portions of I-80, I-580 and U.S.395.

The Debate

We think of the text amendment as a compromise that will prevent the annoying, flashing digital signs while allowing gas station owners in the zones where digital are forbidden, the ease of changing prices remotely just as other gas station owners can do in the commercial areas of town.

Representatives of the gas station industry were on hand for the public hearing last week to oppose the compromise saying they were against any limits on how often their signs could change. The sign industry also was represented and opposed the low brightness level.

At the hearing, Scenic Nevada attorney Mark Wray urged the council to approve the text amendment with the one-hour flip time and not give up the standards approved during the past that protected the scenic attributes of Mt. Rose Highway.

“We’re not against business, however, Mt. Rose Highway exists as a scenic attraction,” Wray said, “and it deserves to be preserved the way it is…Let’s not give up those ordinances and standards.”

Targeted Digital Regulations Maintain Protections

The issue surfaced when gas station owners requested digital signs in the forbidden zones. City staff asked council for the text amendment in these areas to allow just the prices to be displayed digitally, as long as there were certain restrictions.

Scenic Nevada met with staff before the hearing and asked for a 24-hour flip time, no motion, scrolling, flashing or video and a nighttime brightness level of 150 nits. A nit is a measurement of how bright a sign is. The higher the nit level, the brighter the sign. Citywide, digital signs are allowed a nighttime brightness level of 1,500 nits, which we’ve always opposed.

At first city staff omitted the flip time, until Scenic Nevada pointed out that tall gas station signs in Carson City can display the price of one grade of gasoline after another every four seconds, instead of displaying them all at once like the signs in Reno gas stations. See the sign photo.

Carson City type sign won’t be allowed along Mt. Rose Highway

That sign along I-580 changes 6 or 7 times as you approach it, Wray said. “Now imagine that on Mt. Rose Highway.”

Without a flip time, we were afraid that some sign owners would see the advantage to attracting drivers with a four-second flip time. Although flashing is prohibited, city staff agreed that flipping every few seconds would not be considered “flashing” and therefore would not be prohibited – unless a flip time was added. Staff proposed a 30-minute flip time, after we brought up the Carson City example.

When asked by council members, city staff said that actually the time limit doesn’t matter as long as it can be measured. “We just request that it be measurable, if we have a standard, so a half hour is fine, an hour is fine, probably four hours is fine,” Planning Director Arlo Stockham said.

The Compromise

We backed off the 24-hour flip time and opted for a one-hour limit, after learning from a gas station industry representative that on average gas stations change their prices about twice a day, although more frequent changes can happen. We asked for one-hour to prevent sign owners from programming frequent changes and figured the switch would only occur when there is a price change, unlike the sign in Carson City.

Vice Mayor Naomi Duerr agreed, calling it a compromise and saying once an hour provides 24 price changes a day – although she doesn’t expect gas stations to change their prices every hour.  She also said the council has spent a lot of time on digital signs and the “nuisance to neighborhoods,” adding that she is very “sensitized to the flipping of signs.”

“I think the issue (Scenic Nevada) brought up in Carson City has been that the people have been changing their prices frequently and it almost becomes like a digital display, if you change it and change it and change it.” Duerr said. “So, I do think there should be a limitation maybe in contrast to some of my colleagues… I really like the one hour concept, 24 times a day.”

Council Members Devin Reese, Naomi Jardon and Bonnie Weber said they were opposed to any flip-time restrictions. But when the vote came all three voted in favor with Duerr, and Council Members Oscar Delgado and Jenny Brekhus. Mayor Hillary Schieve was absent.

Councilman Delgado said he appreciated Scenic Nevada’s compromise and bringing the Carson City example to the council’s attention. He also said he didn’t expect the signs to change 24 times a day either with a one-hour limit and that the compromise shows “some understanding” of Reno’s scenic corridors.

“I don’t think anyone is saying that there’d be changing 24 times on a given day, but it gives some parameters in terms of what you would initially think would be amenable especially to residents and constituents,” Delgado said. “So, again a compromise of one hour to me works and it’s an opportunity – working with all the stakeholders here today.”

Council Member Brekhus agreed, saying a one-hour flip time was fair and reasonable and that the council “spent a lot of time in response to a community request that aesthetics do matter, that (flipping) signs are a distraction.”