Tacoma might be close to settling a long-running dispute over what to do about nearly 300 billboards inside the city limits, a fight that has been both expensive and contentious.
The compromise proposed by Lamar, the company that owns most of the billboards in the city, would leave hundreds of billboards in Tacoma but require them to be placed in certain areas of the city, mostly along arterial streets in high-intensity mixed-used and commercial districts.
The proposal was unveiled Tuesday at the City Council study session.
Several council members — many of whom have been dealing with the billboard issue since they first took office in 2009 — seemed somewhat relieved that a resolution could be on the horizon.
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“I think both sides gave, and both sides gave until it hurt a little bit,” said city manager Elizabeth Pauli, who worked in the city attorney’s office for the entirety of the billboard fight. “So I think that what’s in front of you is the best that can come of this process.”
The compromise on the table calls for the City Council to pass an ordinance that would result in Lamar removing 111 of what the city considers nonconforming billboard faces. That’s out of the 294 billboards the company currently has in Tacoma. That process would take place over the course of five years.
As long as that ordinance was in place, Lamar would agree to not sue the city.
As a further concession, Tacoma would have to pay Lamar fair-market value if the city amended that ordinance in the future in a way that would require the sign company to remove any of its billboards.
That could get pricey. In 2011, then-owner of Tacoma’s billboards, Clear Channel, estimated the fair market value of its signs in Tacoma at more than $75 million.
Lamar eventually would be able to replace some of the nonconforming billboards it removed and could have a maximum of 225 billboard faces in the city.
The company would be limited to erecting its signs in specific zones allowed under what would be the city’s new sign code, which would exclude billboards from residential, shoreline, conservation and historic districts. No billboards could be placed on rooftops, under the new code.
▪ Tacoma Mall Boulevard area, including South 38th Street and South Steele Street
▪ Sixth Avenue from Mildred to Orchard streets
▪ South Mildred Street and South 19th Street
▪ Union Avenue near Tacoma Central shopping center
▪ South 72nd Street and South Hosmer Street
▪ Along North Pearl Street in the area of North 21st Street, North 26th Street and North Westgate Boulevard
▪ Center Street between South Tyler Street and South Orchard Street West
Lamar would not be able to start replacing any billboard faces until at least 61 are removed.
“All along our goal was always to remove blight, to beautify our city and remove as many billboards in the shortest period of time, understanding that the idea of them going away altogether was probably not realistic,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said during Tuesday’s study session.
Deputy city attorney Chris Bacha said it might be difficult for Lamar to reach its cap of 225 but because of rules around buffering and dispersing the billboards meant to discourage them being clustered in any one place.
“The real question would be if they could achieve that cap because there are still restrictions in code limitations … and then they have to find landowners willing to lease sites to them, so they’d have an uphill battle in getting up to their max of 225,” Bacha said.
The council has tried for years to outlaw billboards in certain areas and get them removed but ended up locked in a years-long legal standoff with the billboards owners. Clear Channel, the former owner of the billboards, sued the city in 2007, claiming that the city’s sign code unconstitutionally regulated speech.
Since then, Tacoma has spent roughly $207,000 on outside counsel and extensive amounts of staff time on the issue, Bacha said.
The city and Clear Channel reached a standstill agreement in 2012 that stayed enforcement of a citywide ban on digital billboards and kept both parties out of court. Lamar bought all of Clear Channel’s billboards in the Tacoma and Seattle region in 2016.
The proposal’s next stop is the planning commission, which will hear a presentation on Oct. 18. After a public hearing in November, it will go back to the City Council, which is expected to vote on the proposal in December.