It had to be an oh-oh moment for City of Tacoma staff who thought they were nearing the end of a nearly decadelong ordeal of wrestling with BNSF Railway for a narrow swath of land through downtown.
The complex deal to trade stuff the railroad wants for a 20-foot-wide piece of right of way would finally clear the way for completion of the Prairie Line Trail. That’s the long-planned trail that follows the abandoned rail line that completed the Northern Pacific transcontinental in 1873.
The final section runs diagonally from Pacific Avenue to South 15th Street between the Tacoma Art Museum and the United Way Building and has been the toughest to resolve. BNSF calls it a donation but gets plenty in return, especially alternate access to its large South Tacoma Shops property that it hopes to redevelop.
At the end of a recent briefing, City Councilman Marty Campbell pointed out something he thought was obvious.
“There’s a billboard in the middle of that,” noted Campbell. “Is BNSF going to be responsible for taking that down before we assume it, or do we assume it with the billboard and at that point can it be removed?”
Where’s the billboard? Campbell was asked.
“It’s the one that blocks the museum,” Campbell said. The staffers making the presentation responded with a quick, we’ll-get-back-to-you-on-that, and the meeting ended.
Campbell, who has been in the midst of the ongoing battle with Clear Channel over the city’s restrictions on billboards, said he asked the question because he hoped the relatively small billboard would be one fewer to worry about.
The answer, though, might be neither. Assistant economic development director Martha Anderson told me she wasn’t aware of the billboard during negotiations because it didn’t show up in the survey done by the city. BNSF has now told the city the billboard is part of a perpetual easement granted to the previous billboard owner, rights that have been assumed by the current owner. Perpetual means forever. And no, the railroad will not try to buy out the easement so it can donate the land encumbrance-free.
This might be one of the worst billboard placements in the city. It is only 14 feet by 5 feet. It sits well back from Pacific Avenue and at an angle so it can’t be seen by cars and pedestrians heading north. Trees partially block the sign for those traveling south.
It is so ugly that the art museum has been leasing it to at least control what it looks like.
It’s also out of compliance with current city billboard regulations, though full enforcement of those remains hung up in the ongoing legal battle with Clear Channel. While the city’s billboard survey seems to show this one as a Clear Channel property, and that is the company the art museum deals with in leasing the board, Economic Development believes it is owned by CBS Outdoor.
Bad location and illegal? Sounds like it wouldn’t be worth much. But if it stands in the way of the city finishing the Prairie Line Trail and is owned by an entity spoiling for a fight, a near-worthless billboard is suddenly worth quite a bit.
And if the deal with the railroad proceeds, it would be the city that would have to pay for a legal fight or buy out the owner. And if both fail, figuring out how to run a trail around and between two rather substantial steel I-beams would challenge even the most imaginative designer.
Options? The city could tell BNSF it doesn’t want a gift that keeps on taking and say it wants a different 20-foot corridor within the 80-foot-wide right of way. That would mean that rather than accept the segment on the far edge of the land, it could push harder for the 20 feet down the middle where the historic tracks lie. The city also could walk away and reopen the underpass beneath Interstate 705 at A Street that it has agreed to permanently close as a concession to BNSF.
Or the council could simply take the deal next month and hope for the best.
“Our preference would be to deal with the billboard situation after we get the donation,” Anderson email@example.com