Lakeland Commission Reviewing Law Against Gas Pump Videos

LAKELAND | Drivers stopping at a busy Sunoco gas station in Lakeland might have noticed something missing lately: pump-top video terminals that played a loop of commercials and announcements, offering drivers a few minutes of diversion — or annoyance — as they filled their tanks.

The station at the corner of Harden Boulevard and Beacon Road is one of at least three in Lakeland that installed the video displays only to remove them after being informed the devices violate the city’s sign ordinance.

The City Commission is now assessing its decades-old sign ordinance and is considering changes that would allow the video screens at gas islands.

“The technology has changed, but the sign ordinance … goes back many years,” said Steve Bissonnette, Lakeland’s assistant director of community development. “I think this whole issue of technology is going to be at the heart of a lot of our discussion on rewriting sign regulations, not just here but in general, because sign technology evolves rapidly and our code language is sometimes lagging behind.”

Pump-top displays can be found at gas stations in other cities in Polk County, and Lakeland might be the only city in the United States that forbids the video “pump toppers,” an industry expert said.

“That’s the first time I’ve heard of that,” said Christopher Hall, editor of the online report Digital Signage Today.

Bissonnette said Lakeland codes allow only two categories of business displays: signs fixed on columns or monuments and signs on the walls or windows of buildings. He said the city has disallowed temporary signs above gas pumps for years, and code enforcement staff decided the same rule applied to the video displays.

The ordinance has two main purposes, Bissonnette said: protecting esthetic values and preventing gas stations from having a competitive advantage over other businesses.

At least one Lakeland resident was perfectly happy to see the video displays removed. Laura Ward said she normally buys gas at the Sunoco on Harden Boulevard, which is close to her employer’s office, but she found the non-stop commercials so irritating she began avoiding the station.

“For me, it was the volume,” said Ward, 24. “They were so loud I couldn’t even think, and it’s a place where you’re trapped and you don’t even have the choice to look away. … They’re intrusive. You see so much advertising all the time. It was boring, too. It wouldn’t be so bad if they had anything interesting to say, but it was never interesting. It’s just such a dumb idea. I can’t figure out why they’d think it was a good idea.”

Bissonnette said the displays did not violate Lakeland’s noise ordinance.

With more consumers paying at gas pumps with credit or debit cards and never entering the stores, gas stations have installed the video displays as an additional revenue source, Hall said. Contracts vary by company, he said, but typically a supplier installs the displays and solicits the advertisers and then shares the resulting revenue with the gas station.

The Sunoco station’s video screens were supplied by PumpTopTV, a California company. Francois Huynh, the firm’s vice president of retail development, said PumpTopTV operates video displays at about 1,100 gas stations nationwide, including many in Florida.

He said Lakeland is the only city in which he has encountered an ordinance that prohibits the screens. He said he wasn’t aware of the city’s ordinance until after his company installed the screens.

“It’s a big loss for customers, a big loss for us,” Huynh said.

“The station owners generated more money at the same time they’re entertaining consumers at the pump. It’s a win-win situation.”

Huynh said he traveled to Lakeland three times to meet with city staff members and city commissioners. He appeared at the City Commission meeting Jan. 18 to argue for allowing the gas pump screens. He said the displays provide not just advertising but also traffic reports and alerts on missing children.

At least one commissioner, Justin Troller, seemed to favor changing the sign ordinance. Bissonnette said the city manager’s office is scheduling preliminary workshops aimed at a thorough reassessment of the sign regulations.

He said the city wants to hear from anyone with an opinion on the matter, not just businesses.

Bissonnette said it might be a few months before the issue comes before the City Commission.

The Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce has established a task force to offer recommendations on potential changes to the sign rules. The panel is likely to offer its report within two months, chamber President Kathleen Munson said.

“From a chamber standpoint, we respect and want to continue to protect the quality of life and esthetics we enjoy in this city,” Munson said.

“But we feel there may be a few areas where we can ease the sign ordinance language such that it will allow businesses to be able to advertise without interfering with the intent of the code.”

Source: The Ledger