Six days ago, we told you that City Council was about to discuss a proposed new sign bylaw and tax. Today, they finished. After seven years of campaigning by public space and arts activists, two years of research and work by city staff, and a day and a half of debate in the Council Chamber, Toronto now officially has a new system for regulating billboards. In a 29–12 vote, Council passed a harmonized billboard bylaw that will coordinate sign placement, size, and material, replacing the hodgepodge of regulations we’ve been stuck with since amalgamation. Most importantly, the new bylaw will ensure that billboards maintain their place in our city without becoming overly intrusive.
The tax rate was the most controversial part of the proposed package, with some claiming it was far lower than it ought to be given the industry’s presence in the city, and some that it was high enough to bankrupt that industry entirely. The staff recommendation was for a tax scheme that would bring in approximately ten million dollars a year, which the economist contracted by the City to research the matter concluded would amount to a 4–7% taxation rate [PDF]—though the billboard industry vehemently disputed that assessment. Council decided to trust its staff over the word of the industry (which never provided a detailed breakdown of its earnings or revenue to the City or the third-party economist) and voted in favour of the staff’s recommended tax rate 25–16.
Chair of the Planning and Growth Management Committee Norm Kelly had proposed an amendment that would allow companies to replace existing conforming billboards with LED signs and well as build new LED signs anywhere they get permission to install a billboard at all, greatly increasing their visual impact. Along with another motion which would cut the staff’s recommended tax rate by 40%, this spurred a renewed wave of the telephone and email campaign activists had been waging for weeks, flooding councillors’ voicemail boxes and inboxes with pleas to vote for the staff recommendations untouched. Some of his fellow councillors too found these motions unacceptable. Said Councillor Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina): “The notion that we have electronic blinking signs as-of-right in every neighbourhood in this city is unbelievable…We have got to get a handle on this.” Vaughan then went on to point out that the tax rate staff recommended had been reduced, twice, over the past few months, after the industry protested that it was set too high, and that further reductions would be excessive. In the end Council agreed with that sentiment, voting against the move watering down the regulations by allowed LED signs 26–15, just as it had voted in favour of the recommended tax rate.
Staff had originally recommended that the revenue from the tax be set aside—once the bylaw’s enforcement had been paid for—for arts funding. This was the one major recommendation Council rejected, deciding instead to send the money into general revenues. Recommendations as to its allocation will be made by the Budget Committee in the course of establishing the City’s budget. The arts activists who had campaigned so hard for this regulatory package and tax were sanguine, however. Devon Ostrom of the Beautiful City Alliance told us that “this tax wouldn’t exist if the arts community hadn’t it shepherded it through the process, and the Budget Committee has the moral responsibility to see it through.”
At core, though, is this: the City now has the ability, the resources, and the mandate to regulate an industry that has, since amalgamation and for years before, been operating largely unchecked.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.