Matt Driscoll

So-called ‘compromise’ leaves scores of billboards to clutter up Tacoma’s skyline

In this 2011 photo, a large billboard hovers over the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and Union Street in Tacoma. The city’s long, legal fight over the fate of nearly 300 billboards seems about to end in a way that leaves News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll saying, “Meh.”
In this 2011 photo, a large billboard hovers over the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and Union Street in Tacoma. The city’s long, legal fight over the fate of nearly 300 billboards seems about to end in a way that leaves News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll saying, “Meh.” News Tribune file photo

It’s being called a compromise.

But it feels more like a raw deal.

Earlier this month, City Manager Elizabeth Pauli unveiled a proposal that just might put an end to the years-long squabble between the city and its billboard overlords.

These days, those overlords are based out of Louisiana. Lamar Advertising Co., the outdoor advertising pride of the Bayou State, purchased Clear Channel billboards in five markets — including Tacoma — back in early 2016.

The deal Pauli touted — which Lamar proposed, and would require the city council to pass an ordinance making it so — would limit where billboards could be erected in the city. The advertisements would be barred from residential, shoreline, conservation and historic districts, keeping the signage mainly to arterial streets in mixed-used and commercial districts.

The deal also would require Lamar to remove what the city considers to be 111 nonconforming billboard faces over the course of five years.

Currently, Lamar has 294 billboards in the city.

There are just a couple catches.

For starters, once Lamar removes at least 61 of the nonconforming billboards, the company would be granted permission to start putting up new ones. Then, if Tacoma amends its billboard ordinance in the future, the city would have to pay Lamar fair-market value for any billboard the company is forced to remove – a clause that would cost the city millions, and in essence make any such move cost prohibitive.

In the end, Lamar would be allowed to have a maximum of 225 billboard faces in Tacoma, provided they can find a spot for them that adheres to the city’s new sign code.

I’m an Evergreen State College grad, so bear with me for a minute while I do the math on that one …

Columnist crudely calculates, using all his fingers and toes, the difference between the 294 billboards Lamar currently has in Tacoma and the 225 the company eventually would be allowed to have under the new deal.

Bottom line: 69 fewer billboards.

Columnist thinks, “Wait! That can’t be right. I mean, we’ve spent years on this.” He calculates again, more quickly this time since his socks are already off.

No, really, the answer is 69 fewer billboards.

From this desk, it’s a figure that elicits a resounding, “Meh.”

“I think both sides gave, and both sides gave until it hurt a little bit,” Pauli said during an Oct. 10 City Council study session, presenting (and endorsing) the proposal to the elected officials who ultimately will decide whether to sign off on it. “So I think that what’s in front of you is the best that can come of this process.”

Again, really?

For the sake of argument, perhaps that’s true.

I mean, I’ve got a kid getting ready for middle school next year who has never lived in a world where Tacoma wasn’t engaged in a legal battle over billboards. So, maybe, after all these years and all the time and money spent, a measly 69-billboard reduction truly is the best the city can hope for.

Still, given the amount of hours that have gone into pushing back on billboards, that’s a tough pill to swallow.

In some ways, the situation is similar to the debate surrounding the future of Click — a current issue du jour that electeds are largely taking the exact opposite approach to.

Yes, going “all in” on municipal broadband might be expensive. And, yes, it comes with legal risks — most obvious the possibility that the city’s efforts will get squashed in court.

Every so often, though, Tacoma residents speak, coalesce around a cause, demand action and won’t be pacified by risk analyses or lawyers preaching prudence.

When it happens, bold city leaders are inspired to take risks and press forward in a quest for the best possible outcome for Tacoma, not just the tidiest, or least likely to result in a lawsuit.

That’s exactly the kind of fire that was behind Tacoma’s initial anti-billboard movement. As someone who vividly remembers that passion and conviction, it’s hard now to watch that struggle on the verge of resulting in next to nothing.

Maybe Pauli is right, and the deal Lamar is proposing really is the best we can do. But it also feels a lot like defeat.

So, I guess the real question becomes: Does Tacoma still care about billboards? Or are we just ready to turn the page?

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