Tacoma residents say no to digital billboard deal
KATHLEEN COOPER; Staff writer
When the Tacoma City Council approved a legal settlement last year that would allow Clear Channel Outdoor to erect digital billboards in exchange for removing more regular ones, two council members and the city attorney called it a compromise.
But more than 30 Tacomans made clear in public comment last week that they want no such compromise. Three neighborhood associations have written letters of complaint, and loosely organized protests have sprung up online.
Testifying last week before the planning commission, which is considering whether to change city code on billboards to reflect the settlement, residents said digital billboards had no place in the city. Several wondered why the city didn’t fight Clear Channel’s lawsuit and defend its 1997 ordinance banning billboards.
City Manager Eric Anderson and Mayor Marilyn Strickland responded that trying to avoid the cost of litigation was the prudent course. But they said the council’s approval of the settlement was the beginning of a process, not the end.
“It was a one-two,” Anderson said in an interview. “The first step is we agree with the settlement, then do we want to complete it? (The council) has reserved to themselves to do this or not.”
Defending a lawsuit “consumes huge resources, and that judgment hasn’t been made yet,” he said.
“I understand the idea of wanting to stand in and fight, but in any situation we have to assess the risk,” Strickland said.
It’s clear the city has been trying to avoid this particular fight.
“The sign companies have lots of money,” Anderson said, explaining why the city decided in 2007 to try to settle. “When a community like ours says we’re going to go out and do this and radically affect their product, they concentrate their resources.
“It’s a battle that’s literally millions of dollars just in the concept of the lawsuit, without any certainty of winning,” he said. “In this situation we’re the little guy, and we’ve only got so much money. They have to fight us off because if they lose, they lose in a thousand places. If we win, we just win in one.”
The settlement agreement, approved unanimously in July after it was added to the council’s agenda with no public notice, is aimed at ending a dispute over enforceability of the city’s 1997 billboard ordinance that had aimed to phase out signs deemed too big, ugly or disruptive by August 2007. Just before the ban took effect, Clear Channel sued. The settlement agreement provides a framework that allows Clear Channel to erect up to 38 digital billboards if it removes up to 253 regular ones and gives up permits to about 160.
Olivia Lippens, president of the Seattle division of Clear Channel Outdoor, said Monday that settling a lawsuit is always a preferable course, and that the company is not worried about precedent.
“Our concern is making sure we can continue to operate legally within the cities that we’re in,” she said.
But legal battles can take decades. Chuck Thompson, executive director of the International Municipal Lawyers Association, said Clear Channel has an incentive to ensure no legal inroads are made against them.
“I was the county attorney in Montgomery County, Maryland. We had a similar (billboard) law passed in 1969. The lawsuit was filed in 1972. I became county attorney (in the 1990s) and it was still going on,” Thompson said Monday.
The county reached a settlement in 2004, according to a news release on the county’s website. It required Clear Channel to remove the last 11 billboards in the county. In addition, the company would build, operate and maintain bus shelters that held advertising. A portion of the ad revenue went to the county.
At last week’s Tacoma planning commission meeting, the lawyer hired by the city to negotiate with Clear Channel told the commission that the company won’t sign the settlement agreement if it doesn’t like the code changes. Shelley Kerslake of Kenyon Disend, an Issaquah-based municipal law firm, also made remarks that indicated that the planning commission needed to follow the council’s lead and allow digital billboards.
Asked whether those remarks reflected the city’s position on public input, Anderson said no.
“I don’t think that’s what she intended to say,” he said. “I wasn’t there and didn’t hear her. All of the (public) comments that are made will be taken into account.”
Strickland said she expects the commission to “take a look at the details and tell us what they think we should do.” Does that include rejecting digital signs outright?
“Absolutely,” she said. “We appoint a planning commission to take input and offer expertise. They have a right to do that.”
Commission chairman Jeremy Doty said in an interview Friday that commissioners weren’t happy about a proposed legal settlement being the impetus for a planning process. But commissioners worked with staff to craft regulations that would mitigate the public’s concerns, such as the creation of buffer zones. Mitigation might not be enough, Doty said.
“The public hearing was an eye-opener on that point,” he said.
City staff members have said they expect a final recommendation to go before the council this summer. Doty said the commission could reject the idea of digital billboards altogether.
“We’ll be using the next few months to look at it from all directions,” he said. “I don’t know that the lawsuit is our primary concern. We want what’s best for the city.”
Lippens said the settlement accomplishes the goal of the 1997 ordinance, which was to reduce the number of billboards in the city.
“Clear Channel is taking a substantial financial hit by relinquishing
assets that effectively have or can make money for us,” she said. “Building these digital billboards is the only win-win that would enable us to relinquish all those signs.”
City staff members have compared the proposed digital billboards to digital picture frames, saying they wouldn’t be allowed to scroll, flash or feature motion pictures, though they could have static images changed every eight or nine seconds. The first 10 digital billboards could be as large as 672 square feet.
Strickland said some digital billboards are loud and flashy, but the ones proposed for Tacoma are not. Moreover, businesses rely on them as a form of advertising, and Tacoma is a city with a lot of business districts.
“We’re not trying to turn Tacoma into Vegas, but we need to recognize we’re not Mayberry,” she said.
Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546