Tacoma staff working on ‘alternative’ for billboards since the spring

The Tacoma City Council heard from more than a dozen people Tuesday night about dueling ideas for regulating billboards in the city — a hearing featuring not just the recommendations from the city’s Planning Commission, but a proposal from city staff as well.

Comments were evenly split between those arguing for maintaining some billboards in town and others who would like the council to enforce the laws on the books and remove most, if not all, billboards.

Representatives from Clear Channel Outdoor, which owns almost all the billboards in Tacoma, told the council that billboards’ relatively low lease cost is an essential tool for small businesses, which can’t afford expensive television advertising. Additionally, about 120 property owners in Tacoma receive lease payments from Clear Channel for allowing billboards on their land, said Clear Channel vice president for real estate Peter Wangoe, providing an essential income stream for many of them.

Zachary Kinneman and Barbara Lantaff own property on Puyallup Avenue, and they receive $516 a month from Clear Channel for allowing a billboard. That money has allowed the couple to borrow funds to finance environmental cleanup on the property, Kinneman said.

“These types of small amounts are significant to some businesses,” Kinneman said.

On the other side of the issue, about seven Tacoma residents asked the council to defend the law it passed in 1997 that set the city on the path to eliminating billboards.

“I do support all the citizens of Tacoma who really dislike billboards, and I think there are a lot of us,” said Jodi Cook. “Tacoma’s made it very clear for decades that billboards are to be taken out” of the city.

Tuesday evening’s public hearing was the latest turn in the saga of Tacoma versus Clear Channel Outdoor that began in 2007, when the company first sued the city over its law that would have required them to start removing billboards across town.

In 2010, the city attempted to settle that lawsuit. As part of that attempt, staff sent the Planning Commission a new sign ordinance that reflected an agreement the city had reached with Clear Channel. The Planning Commission responded with a call for the city to largely stand by the 1997 law, citing in part concerns about allowing a legal settlement to dictate public policy.

Clear Channel sued again in 2012, and litigation has been on pause since then as the company and the city search for a solution outside of court.

The company testified Tuesday in support of a city staff proposal that was revealed Nov. 10. The plan surprised members of the Planning Commission, which had been working for months on its own recommendations.

Among other things, the staff alternative calls for the council to change city law and give itself authority to enter into something called a “special compliance agreement.” The agreement then could require billboard owners to remove specific structures by specific times in a way city code does not.

In exchange for those removals, billboard owners would be allowed to ignore part of city law that calls for “amortization” — a measure intended to allow billboard owners time to make money on their signs before requiring their removal. It’s this part of the law that prompted Clear Channel to sue in the first place.

The Planning Commission’s recommendations retain amortization. City staff has called that a “poison pill” to settling legal matters with Clear Channel.

Commission chairman Chris Beale and member Don Erickson sent a letter of complaint over the weekend to the council, saying city law requires things like the staff alternative to be presented to the commission first, and that bypassing the commission sets a “dangerous precedent.”

We are the policymakers. We have a lot of different groups that make recommendations, and we often change them.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland

Planning division manager Brian Boudet said Tuesday that planners just wanted the council to be aware of all of its options. He said staff started talking about an alternative in March.

Boudet opened Tuesday’s public hearing with a short explanation of the commission’s recommendation and the staff alternative. The first council member to ask him a question was David Boe, an architect and a former member of the planning commission.

Boe first said he understood the commission’s frustration that the alternative seemed to “come out of left field,” then asked Boudet to explain why the commission didn’t hear about the alternative first.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland answered instead.

“We are the policymakers,” she said. “We have a lot of different groups that make recommendations, and we often change them.”

Strickland said the council appreciates the work of the Planning Commission, then asked Boe, “Does that clarify?”

“It’s very clear,” he responded. “Maybe I’m just feeling some of the frustration of sending a unanimous recommendation (to the council) and having the elected body go another way. I just think we have to be mindful of that.”

After the meeting, Strickland said city staff members were being made to feel like they did something wrong, and she doesn’t believe they did. They aren’t obligated to run things through the Planning Commission first, she said.

“Staff has a responsibility to bring an alternative” to us if they see one, Strickland said.

Planning manager Brian Boudet told the council that the staff alternative is also a plan that is within the range of options that billboard owners would accept.

City staff have said the alternative plan is based on a community working group and the Planning Commission’s work — an assertion Planning Commission chairman Beale disputed last week. The commission’s recommendation not only retains amortization, but also bans free-standing billboards and places limits on sign size and placement — all key differences with the staff alternative.

Boudet told the council Tuesday that the alternative is also a plan that is within the range of options that billboard owners would accept. He said the staff alternative was discussed with Clear Channel, although he did not say when those discussions began. Specifics came “late in the process,” he said.

After the hearing, Strickland said it was time to put an end to the billboard wars. She recalled that in 2008, the city estimated fighting a lawsuit against Clear Channel would cost around $4 million. “And that was with a chance of not prevailing,” she said.

Several new council members take their seats Jan. 1. Strickland said she wants the current council to finish the Clear Channel issue before then.

She said there was no particular reason for her desire to settle it before the new year other than the fact that the current council has dealt with the issue for a long time.

“We need to put this to rest so businesses can have certainty, Clear Channel can have certainty, and neighborhoods can know what to expect,” she said.

Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546, @KCooperTNT

Staff writer Kate Martin contributed to this report.