A TOUGH DECISION: Cheaper sports vs. visual pollution

Proposed billboard for the leaside arena.
The proposed billboard for the arena.

Are we conflicted over the cost-saving interests of sports-loving families in Leaside with the rights of area residents to enjoy their homes free of visual pollution that could reduce traffic safety? I am.

The decision to be made is about Leaside Memorial Community Gardens’ (LMCG) application for a large new LED sign to replace the existing front-lit sign at Millwood Rd.

At the May 12 community consultation meeting, Ray White, chair of the LMCG board, spoke passionately about the need for a modern landmark sign for the Gardens, and the resolve of the board to increase financial self-sufficiency. The new sign would potentially raise rental revenue to $45,000 annually from $9,000 currently.

The sign would stand at a height of 11 metres (36 feet, or three storeys high) and contain two sign faces, higher and approximately twice the size of the existing sign.

The site is designated as an Open Space sign district, and digital third party signs are not permitted. The sign company, Outfront Media, has applied for an exemption to the sign by-law.

From May 1 of this year the Gardens’ existing sign has been given over to selling the digital sign application: We’re on Your (Lea) Side, it says, along with images of a boy hockey player (south face) and girl ice skater (north face) and below, a website link, www.onyourleaside.com.

Go to the website and if you complete a survey you qualify for a draw for a $300 prize. Unfortunately this is the most blatantly one-sided survey I’ve seen in a long time. Before you get to answer any questions you are told that the new sign generates four times the revenue to LMCG, provides for free Gardens and community messaging, at no cost to the LMCG or the community. No cost?

The major issues with digital are the level of distraction for drivers, and the view impacts for residents, compared with traditional signs.

At the May 12 community consultation meeting, the sign company representatives denied there was any link between digital signs and vehicle accidents. However, consider this: digital billboards are specifically intended to attract your eyes off the road – that’s their entire purpose.

When the city was considering the digital sign by-law back in 2013, the Ipsos Reid poll commissioned by the city found that nearly three times as many Toronto drivers find digital signs distracting as compared to traditional billboards.

Jerry Wachtel, a Berkeley-based traffic safety expert, concluded, based on a survey of the literature, that, “Every study in the past five years has produced consistent findings: that roadside billboards, especially digital and video, cause significant levels of driver distraction. These distractions result in poorer speed control and lane positioning, and may increase crashes in demanding situations when unexpected events occur.”

And in this case, the complex Millwood/Laird intersection makes it a dangerous intersection.

The one or two seconds you spend looking at a sign is one or two fewer seconds you have to respond to someone suddenly braking ahead of you. This is the rationale behind the ban on cellphone use while driving. There is also the impact on nearby residents.

The sign company representatives admit they are concerned about light nuisance, and quickly advised that the law requires that the sign’s illumination be shut off at 11 p.m. And Ray White offered that the LMCG would consider an earlier shut off for the north west facing sign face.

The residents most directly affected would be less than 100 metres away; the new owners of the still unbuilt Upper House condos at 25 Malcolm Rd. on the former Post Office site with units facing Millwood Rd. I asked the realtor if she was advising condo buyers about the greatly altered view they could face and she did not answer my question, but responded that she would be “happy to sign the petition” (presumably in opposition?). Residents of Krawchuk Lane and Malcolm Rd. were at the community consultation meeting and voiced their concerns.

The other issue for the community is precedent. This is an important consideration, and cannot be conclusively addressed.

Comparison of the community reaction between this sign and another recent digital sign application by Outfront Media in, or close to, our community is instructive. That was a single face sign application on the rail overpass on Eglinton east of Leslie St. In that case, the application was withdrawn by the company when 25 letters of opposition were filed, mainly from residents of the Carrington condos on Leslie, which are located about 250 metres from the sign.

In this case, because the revenue will subsidize kids’ sport, we are asked to be “on Lea side” and not think about the implications (as we do for every other development application). In fact the potential cost to the community is far from nil. We need to weigh the costs carefully.

The application for an exemption to the by-law will go to Planning and Growth Management Committee (PGMC) on June 15, and subsequently to City Council on July 12 for decision. The decision makers, including Councillor Burnside, need to hear from the community.

You can let your views be known in several ways. You can attend the next LPOA meeting on June 1 when the LPOA will vote on the matter; you can write to PGMC copying Jon Burnside, and to City Council. Watch the LPOA web site for further details of the agendas.

NOTE: I acknowledge the source of much of the information on distraction is Alison Gorbold, Toronto Should Say No to More Digital Billboards, Torontoist, Sept. 24, 2013.

About Geoff Kettel 222 Articles
Geoff Kettel is a community connector and advocate for “making places better”. He is currently Co-President of the Leaside Residents Association, Co-Chair of the Federation of North Toronto Residents‘ Associations (FoNTRA), member of the Toronto Preservation Board and Past Chair of the North York Community Preservation Panel. He writes a monthly column on heritage and planning in Leaside Life.