Tacoma to start talking about new billboard rules

The city of Tacoma will form a working group to talk about billboard regulations later this month, nearly two years after it agreed to do so under a deal that halted a legal battle between it and Clear Channel Outdoor.

Billboard critics present at Tuesday’s council meeting where the group was announced questioned why it has taken so long.

“All they are doing is proposing what they were going to do two years ago,” said Doug Schafer, chairman of the Central Neighborhood Council.

The working group will include members of various neighborhood councils and business districts, the Port of Tacoma, Puyallup Tribe, government agencies and commercial interests, including Clear Channel. The group’s work could be completed by next spring, said Brian Boudet, planning division manager.

He said the goal is to have fewer billboards in areas such as residential neighborhoods and historic districts.

“We want to have as few billboards as we possibly can,” he told the City Council.

City officials didn’t explain why it’s taken this long to create the working group.

“Has the discussion changed much over the last couple of years? Probably not,” Boudet said after the meeting.

Most of Clear Channel’s billboards in Tacoma are “nonconforming,” Boudet said, which means the signs are in places where city law says they are not allowed.

The City Council passed an ordinance in 1997 to eradicate billboards in the city within 10 years. Clear Channel sued the city just before the 2007 deadline, arguing the law was unconstitutional.

To end the court fight, the council made a deal with Clear Channel to remove 85 percent of billboards in exchange for a few digital billboards on main roads. But citizen outcry caused the council to back away from the settlement and instead ban digital billboards and require removal of nonconforming signs.

Two years ago, city and Clear Channel officials agreed to a time-out in the court fight. As part of the agreement, Clear Channel was forced to give up more than 170 permits that would have allowed it to replace a demolished billboard with a new one in another spot, Campbell said Tuesday.

Since 2012, the company has removed about 70 billboard “faces,” Boudet said. The city currently has 320 billboard faces, the majority of them owned by Clear Channel.

Digital billboards remain prohibited in city code, he said.

This fall, the city plans to host community meetings to discuss possible new regulations. By February, the planning commission may have reviewed a recommendation, and the council could consider changes by February or March.