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Tacoma’s billboard rules still in flux but public invited to comment

The Tacoma Planning Commission is inviting the public to comment Wednesday on some potential changes to city billboard law, but many of the proposals may look very different by the time the City Council hears them.

At least one of the items up for discussion Wednesday isn’t likely to advance one of the city’s priorities: Reducing the number of billboards while not reigniting litigation with Clear Channel Outdoor, which has been on pause since 2012.

The Planning Commission is proposing to phase out billboards in certain parts of the city by giving Clear Channel time to make money on the boards before requiring their removal. This so-called amortization program is based on the same theory used by the city’s 1997 law, which Clear Channel sued over in 2007.

Furthering the city’s legal negotiations with Clear Channel isn’t the Planning Commission’s priority, chairman Chris Beale said Monday.

“One thing that we definitely try to do is to focus on what’s good planning policy and leave the politics to the City Council,” he said. The commission should “take a more independent role.”

The only reason the nine-member volunteer commission took up the issue is because the City Council kicked the billboard laws back to it in 2011 after trying to settle the Clear Channel lawsuit.

The potential to frustrate the city’s legal negotiations isn’t the only snag with the commission’s plan. City staff are also concerned about whether some of the regulations would work in practice.

Other ideas up for comment Wednesday include:

▪  A billboard exchange program in which billboard owners could build larger wall-mounted billboards in certain parts of the city in exchange for removing billboards on poles.

▪  Allowing those wall-mounted signs to be of unlimited height and width as long as city staff approves them.

▪  Reducing the required distance between billboards and the buffer distance between a billboard and a sensitive area like a park.

The commission will make its final recommendations toward the end of October. The City Council isn’t required to follow what the commission recommends.

The commission has consistently supported strict regulation of billboards.

In 2011, when the city struck a deal to settle the lawsuit with Clear Channel by allowing digital billboards in parts of the city, the public was vehemently opposed. The Planning Commission heard hours of testimony on the issue and sent a strongly worded recommendation to the council in May 2011 that not only decried digital billboards but reiterated support for decisions dating back decades to reduce the number of billboards in Tacoma using amortization.

City planner John Harrington, who provides staff support to the Planning Commission, called the latest amortization proposal a “poison pill” to any possible settlement with Clear Channel.

The commission “is saying ‘we’d rather just go back to the status quo of fighting in court or a sustained standstill,’ where we just keep staring at each other,” he said. City leaders are separately negotiating an agreement with Clear Channel, Harrington said, to accomplish the city’s goals of fewer billboards and no lengthy court fight.

Clear Channel representatives did not return several messages for comment Monday.

Beale said the commission felt strongly that amortization should remain a tool for removing billboards. Other anti-billboard advocates agree and have long wanted the city to fight Clear Channel in court rather than continually try to settle.

“The city leadership in my view is simply not being well advised by competent lawyers,” said Doug Schafer, chairman of the Central Tacoma Neighborhood Council.

Looking at the commission’s proposed changes, Schafer has a different concern: that a 2012 federal law will make it impossible for the city to remove any billboards if they aren’t flat-out called “illegal” in city code.

Harrington plans to present an analysis at the Wednesday meeting showing that the proposed exchange program will have a negligible effect in reducing the number of billboards. Because it is based on shifting billboard square footage from poles to buildings, it requires the availability of buildings with blank walls. Combine that with the other limitations on how far away a billboard can be from other things, and there are virtually no places to put a wall billboard in the most desirable zones, he said.

“You have to find a building that’s visible from the street. A lot of these buildings in these new areas, there are trees along the streets,” he said. In other places, like the area around the mall that advertisers crave, a building would need to be at least two stories tall to accommodate a wall billboard, which cannot be on the front of the building. Even downtown has very few structures that would fit all the criteria.

Then the building owner would have to agree.

Beale said he hadn’t read the staff analysis yet, but that he would trust it. The commission wants to get away from new billboards on poles, he said.

Wednesday’s hearing is an opportunity for people to comment not just on the billboard proposals but on the city’s philosophy toward billboards, Beale said. He expects most of the comments to not only be against the changes but to question making changes at all.

“I almost expect on Wednesday more people to say, ‘why are we even doing this if the current code is more restrictive?’ ” he said. “The majority of people I talk to want to know why the city isn’t fighting Clear Channel.”

After Wednesday’s hearing, the commission will take public comment in writing until Friday at 5 p.m.

PUBLIC HEARING

What: Planning Commission hearing on proposed changes to Tacoma’s billboard law.

When: Wednesday, 5 p.m.

Where: City Council Chambers, 747 Market St.

More information: Go to cityoftacoma.org and search for “billboards.”

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