A pitch for an electronic billboard in Burnsville is lighting up a decades-long debate over the towering roadside signs.

Clear Channel Outdoor approached the city this spring with the idea of installing a new electronic billboard along Interstate 35W, north of Hwy. 13. In exchange, the company would take down a billboard elsewhere, probably along County Road 11 near Interstate 35E.

Trading one for the other would require changes to the city's billboard rules, long intended to eliminate the signs altogether.

The City Council is firmly split.

Council Member Mary Sherry, staunch in her opposition to any new billboard, said the existing ordinance "was put in with good reason." She pleaded at a recent meeting in favor of a bucolic view of the river valley that could become a more attractive entrance to the city instead of the industrial area it now is.

"We have a lot of things that we're struggling with in this community and we've got something that was just given to us on a platter -- this wonderful view of the river valley," Sherry said. "I do not want to see that it has any more clutter in it than it already has."

But Council Members Dan Kealey, Dan Gustafson and Bill Coughlin, all receptive to Clear Channel's request, were focused more on the opportunities of an electronic sign. In other cities that allow electronic billboards, Clear Channel has offered some of the rotating images, free of charge, for advertisements about city events or Amber Alerts.

"We have nine billboards and we don't have any of that," Kealey said.

As for the river valley, he noted plans to develop the Minnesota River Quadrant north of Hwy. 13 and west of I-35W, may obscure the view anyway.

Gustafson said a new billboard with a decorative pillar with Burnsville's logo could be a monument marking the city entrance and "give us a nicer looking product than what we see in the river [valley] now."

Matthew Weiland, a senior real estate representative from Clear Channel, agreed.

"These aren't our old signs. We want them to look good," he said. "We use high-quality design and high-quality materials on them."

Clear Channel owns four billboards in Burnsville, including two along I-35W north of Hwy. 13.

Burnsville's rules governing billboards have been on the books since 1977, evolving with changes to laws about eminent domain, amortization and court cases in other cities that have tussled over the roadside advertisements.

The number of billboards in Burnsville has decreased from 23 in 1988 to nine. Of those remaining, six are poised for removal someday based on redevelopment or agreements reached with their owners.

Mayor Elizabeth Kautz said she is only open to an electronic billboard if Clear Channel takes down more than one existing billboard in exchange.

For other council members, it was more about location than total number, citing the possible elimination of the County Road 11 billboard.

"I didn't bring this up because I wanted to add more billboards to the city of Burnsville," Kealey said. "I like Clear Channel's proposal to eliminate one that I believe is in the wrong district."

Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286