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Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Those ‘eyesore’ ad barges could soon be banned

By Scott Enman, June 17

The State Senate passed a bill on Thursday seeking a statewide ban on the massive floating billboards — “ugly” and “obnoxious” billboards, according to residents — that appeared along New York City’s waterways earlier this year.

The legislation — sponsored by Manhattan State Sen. Brad Hoylman, whose district encompasses parts of the East River — passed 41-21 with every Brooklyn senator voting in approval.

“Billboards belong in Times Square, not in the middle of the East River,” Hoylman told the Brooklyn Eagle. “New Yorkers already see way too much advertising in their daily lives. They don’t need to see it on our waterways.”

The bill would fine barge operators $1,000 on their first violation and $5,000 for all subsequent offenses. It now transitions to the Assembly, where it is expected to pass before the legislative session ends on Wednesday. It will then move to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk.

A digital billboard, according to the legislation, is any advertisement with flashing, intermittent or moving lights. The impetus for the bill stemmed from uproar over the 60-foot-wide LED-advertising barge that roamed the East River and New York Harbor through March.

The vessel, with two-sided, 20-foot-high screens, was seen traveling down the Brooklyn waterfront from Greenpoint to Bay Ridge, as well as along the Hudson River. Advertisers included the Brooklyn Nets, Heineken and “The Grinch.”

Every Brooklyn senator voted to approve the statewide ban on floating ad barges. Eagle file photo by Todd Maisel
Every Brooklyn senator voted to approve the statewide ban on floating ad barges. Eagle file photo by Todd Maisel

The city entered a legal battle with Ballyhoo Media — a company based in Miami, where floating billboards are ubiquitous along the beaches — back in March.

Lawyers for the city argued that the company was violating city zoning laws, while attorneys for Ballyhoo maintained that the waters surrounding New York City are under the jurisdiction of the state.

“As New York State has jurisdiction relative to the lands under the East and Hudson rivers, state legislation is required in order to authorize local legislative bodies to adopt and enforce laws that apply to these bodies of water,” Derek Wolman, of Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, wrote in a letter to the city.

The current statewide bill seeking to ban the billboards outright would effectively squash Ballyhoo’s legal argument. (Ballyhoo and its representative Wolman did not return requests for comment.)

Sen. Andrew Gounardes, who represents Bay Ridge, said the boats are not only unattractive, but also dangerous for passing motorists.

“We go to the waterfront to find peace of mind, not a neon sign,” Gounardes told the Eagle. “Advertising barges are a nuisance and an eyesore for all those who enjoy our city’s beautiful waterways.

“They are also a distraction for drivers, which make them a traffic safety hazard. I’m glad we were able to pass this bill in the Senate and hope it becomes law.”

Any violation of the city’s zoning rules is a misdemeanor with fines up to $25,000 per violation, per day.

A bill introduced on March 28 by Councilmembers Justin Brannan and Mark Levine sought to quadruple that fee to $100,000.

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who is sponsoring the bill in the Assembly, said the billboards are “offensive” and “unsightly” and that he hopes the fines will dissuade barge companies from operating.

But while the city and state bills may discourage some businesses, the fines — which pale in comparison to the thousands of dollars made in advertising — may not be strong enough of a deterrent for Ballyhoo.

A 30-second ad in a two-minute loop on the boats in New York City, for example, nets businesses approximately $55,000, a spokesperson for Pivot Media Ventures, a Ballyhoo affiliate, told Digiday.