Digital billboards are off the table, but in the future Tacoma could see the building of new static ones of a size most often seen along highways.
An agreement signed Wednesday by representatives of the city and Clear Channel Outdoor covers action the company and the city will take during the next two years.
In the next 30 days, the company will give up all its sign permits and will apply for demolition permits to take down 20 billboard structures. Within the next three months, those billboards should disappear, and 15 more will be repaired. And the two parties will dismiss their lawsuits against each other while they negotiate.
Those steps were made public Tuesday when city officials announced the agreement. On Wednesday, the text of the agreement gave those negotiations some shape.
During the next two years, the city and Clear Channel will try to hash out a billboard “consolidation plan” that could remove signs from one part of the city in exchange for “bulletin-sized static billboards to be constructed or reconstructed in certain areas … mutually agreeable to the city and Clear Channel.”
Bulletin-sized billboard faces are 14 feet tall and 48 feet wide — the size of the billboard atop the building at the corner of Sixth and Union avenues. At 672 square feet, Clear Channel’s website says they’re positioned on “highly visible, heavy traffic locations such as expressways and major roadways.”
Of its hundreds of billboard faces, Tacoma has 22 of this size or larger, city data show. Of those, only six are “conforming” to the current rules. The rest are out of compliance, mostly for being too big for the zone they’re in.
Under the idea of a consolidation plan, the city would have site-by-site approval of any new billboard sites, city attorney Elizabeth Pauli said Wednesday. But she said it’s premature to assume any new billboards are coming.
“All we’re agreeing to do is to discuss,” she said. “We have no preconceived notion.”
Clear Channel spokesman Jim Cullinan said in an email Wednesday that the consolidation plan would be about exchanging current static billboards for static billboards in new locations.
“It is about swapping locations rather than new billboards,” he said. Cullinan also said it’s unknown whether that swap could include an upgrade along the lines of removing a small billboard in exchange for permission to build a larger one elsewhere.
“It would be pure speculation until we know what we will be removing and where the new location will be,” he said.
Pauli said the discussions will focus on the crux of the issue: “Where they are and how big are they?”
That’s also the crux of the community’s concern. City officials said Wednesday they planned to engage the public on the consolidation plan during the next two years, including public meetings and a citizens task force.
“This represents the most significant action taken toward achieving the goal of billboard removal to date,” Councilman Marty Campbell said in a news release. “It begins a cost-effective and public process while still allowing the city to pursue full legal action in the future if warranted.”
Some of the city’s most outspoken critics aren’t satisfied.
“It just seems frustrating because I think the 1997 City Council had it right, and it’s just sad that the city’s leaders and attorneys have not stood firm and enforced the 1997 billboard code,” said Doug Schafer, a local attorney and member of the Central Neighborhood Council, which has been a leading critic of how the city leadership has handled the billboard saga during the last several years.
In 1997, the city passed a law that gave Clear Channel 10 years to remove signs that didn’t fit within new limits of size and location. The company sued the city just before the law took effect, arguing it was unconstitutional. A settlement was reached to require demolition of signs in exchange for letting Clear Channel put up a smaller number of new billboards using digital technology.
But public outcry led the council to backpedal and ban digital signs, as well as ask a court to invalidate the settlement deal.
Pauli highlighted another part of the “standstill agreement” directly related to the 1997 law. The 10-year delay in that law taking effect was the method by which the city compensated the company for value of the signs that were to have been demolished. Instead of writing a check for market value, that amount was amortized over the decade.
Whether amortization can be considered compensation hasn’t been fully decided by the courts, so the standstill agreement specifically calls for Clear Channel to give up any claim for compensation for the 17 billboards it has agreed to remove.
“If amortization is ever not enforced by the court, we don’t want to have to pay retroactively for them to have had removed a dilapidated old billboard,” Pauli said.
City officials said the most recent agreement was the best way to avoid an expensive court fight when the city’s running a deficit. Schafer said the delay plays into Clear Channel’s hands.
“They proceed based on the threat of crushing litigation costs,” he said. Plus, constant negotiations that lead to these agreements undermine the essence of law.
“It seems so offensive to me, the idea that a local government can enact laws, and when big corporation isn’t happy with its laws, they sue, and the city officials enter into a contract that says ‘we’ll agree by this contract that the laws don’t apply to you,’ ” Shafer said. “Is that the way our government is supposed to function?
“If the law can be superseded by the city officials entering into a private contract, then the law is meaningless.”