The Tacoma City Council has approved a legal settlement with Clear Channel Outdoor that will allow the company to install 10 “digital billboards” that can display multiple images.
But Clear Channel must first remove 53 signs now posted around the city and give up 100 permits it now holds to construct new ones, settlement records show. Once it applies for city permits for the new digital billboards, Clear Channel is also required to remove 25 more signs around the city over the next five years.
The initial exchange of removing old billboards to install the new digital ones – expected to occur within the next six months – is the first provision of a more complicated five-year deal that could result in as many as 36 new digital billboards in Tacoma.
To maximize that amount, Clear Channel would have to remove all 240 of its signs now posted in the city and give up 169 permits it now holds to build new ones.
Precise locations of where the first 10 digital billboards will be located are yet to be determined, city officials said. But “approximate locations” being considered by Clear Channel show most are in central Tacoma.
The agreement, which involves no monetary exchange, effectively settles a federal lawsuit brought in 2007 by Clear Channel that claimed the city’s anti-billboard ordinance violated the company’s constitutional free-speech rights.
Before the council’s approval of the settlement Tuesday night, Mayor Marilyn Strickland called it a good compromise that will allow the city to better regulate billboard placement and protect neighborhoods.
“If the agreement is fully implemented, and it may take in excess of five years to be fully implemented, the net removal will be 85 percent (of current billboards),” she said.
Strickland stressed that the new digital billboards would be akin to digital picture frames that periodically morph images and not “the loud, flashing neon, Vegas-style billboards you see on I-5.”
“It adjusts itself for lighting and it’s not intrusive,” she said. “It’s a new technology that all billboard companies are moving toward.”
Neither Clear Channel’s lead attorney nor a company spokeswoman returned calls seeking comment Wednesday.
The agreement settles a dispute over enforceability of the city’s billboard ordinance that had aimed to phase out signs deemed too big, ugly or disruptive by Aug. 1, 2007. As many as 193 Clear Channel signs would have been deemed illegal under the ban, city officials have said.
The council granted billboard owners a 10-year period to recoup investments before the ban took effect. Each noncomplying sign that remained afterward faced a $25 per day fine.
Just before the ban took effect, however, Clear Channel sued. It contended the city’s amortization period didn’t count as just compensation under the Fifth Amendment and that the ban violated First Amendment free-speech rights.
City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said Wednesday that matters of amortization, compensation and how billboards are defined remain “hotly contested issues” that have led to litigation and varied rulings.
“Everybody’s compromising,” Pauli added. “Our focus was not to have these kinds of signs in residential areas. That can’t be entirely possible, but we’re trying to preserve neighborhoods as much as possible.”
The settlement, which was not included on advance agendas for Tuesday’s council meeting, defines a digital billboard as a one that “uses digital technology that produces static images which are changed remotely.”
“Digital billboards may not scroll, flash or feature motion pictures,” the agreement states, adding such signs will provide “greater, faster (almost instantaneous) and more effective dissemination of ‘amber alert’ messages” and “use of new and greener materials and technology in sign structures.”
The only member of the public to speak on the issue at Tuesday’s meeting was local political cartoonist RR Anderson, who said the new signs will amount to a “perpetual psychic attack on our citizens.”
“You’re about to give Clear Channel – an inhuman corporation – domain over the minds of our lower-income families,” he said.
Anderson added that by his count, Clear Channel already owes the city more than $25 million for not complying with its ban.
“That could fill a lot of potholes,” he said.
Strickland noted Tuesday that a “compromise was sought that would protect our neighborhoods, but respects the fact that they are business districts.
“It allows the city going forward to regulate billboards in a meaningful and deliberate way and put them in places that the city approves of and where they are more appropriate,” she said.
No other member spoke before the council unanimously approved the deal Tuesday.
“This has dragged on for many years,” Councilman Marty Campbell said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s something the people clearly have told us to find a resolution to. I think we did a good job of creatively finding a compromise.”
Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542