Matt Driscoll

Who was behind that mysterious anti-billboard mailer? The answer might surprise you.

A mailer urging people to oppose a new billboard plan for Tacoma recently was mailed to the city’s voters. News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll found out who sent it and why.
A mailer urging people to oppose a new billboard plan for Tacoma recently was mailed to the city’s voters. News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll found out who sent it and why.

A glossy mailer full of ominous warnings, courtesy of a mysterious sender.

I thought campaign season was over.

Yet, a day after the results of last Tuesday’s election were released, my mailbox — and likely yours, if you’re a Tacoma voter — was again subjected to a less-than-transparent attempt to sway public opinion via the U.S. Postal Service. This time, the target was a proposed deal that would put an end to a years-long dispute over billboards in Tacoma.

Who was responsible for it? The mailer didn’t say, raising obvious questions of motive.

Through some magic we here in the news business call “reporting,” I found out.

The mailer came from Sun Outdoor Advertising, a Lakewood company that offers “premium billboard locations in California, Arizona, Oregon and Washington.”

In other words, the company responsible for last week’s anti-billboard mailer is, in fact, in the billboard business.

Quite the plot twist, I know.

Ann Schnitzer owns the Sun Outdoor Advertising. Schnitzer confirmed that her company was the sender. Schnitzer told me that though she was uncertain “what list was given to the printers,” the company’s intent was to “mail to Tacoma voters.”

“It is important for citizens to know what is going on at City Hall,” Schnitzer wrote via email when reached for comment. “Yes, as a business, we are concerned about the City codifying a billboard monopoly and guaranteeing future rights in perpetuity. But, more importantly, citizens are getting a raw deal.”

It is important for citizens to know what is going on at City Hall. Yes, as a business, we are concerned about the City codifying a billboard monopoly and guaranteeing future rights in perpetuity. But, more importantly, citizens are getting a raw deal.

Ann Schnitzer, owner of Sun Outdoor Advertising

The mailer — which included a laundry list of warnings, some of them legit, some of them hyperbolic — urged citizens to show up at a public hearing on Nov. 14. It also implored recipients to contact the mayor, the City Council, and poor Donlisa Scott, a member of the council’s support staff.

What might inspire Sun Outdoor advertising to take such an unusual and surely expensive step?

As a cynic and realist, I’d suspect money. Or, at least competitive pride.

Though Tacoma planning and development services manager Brian Boudet says Sun Outdoor Advertising does not currently have a billboard in Tacoma, common sense suggests it might like to change that in the future. After all, in Schnitzer’s words, Sun Outdoor Advertising is certainly “concerned about the City codifying a billboard monopoly (with Lamar) and guaranteeing future rights in perpetuity.”

That reasoning, however, is jumbled in with a multitude of other explanations that suggests Sun Outdoor Advertising is most concerned with the proliferation of billboards in Tacoma.

Coming from a billboard company, it’s an unexpected stance.

“Pretty soon, Tacoma could be lit up like Times Square,” Schnitzer’s email continued, veering toward the dramatic. “The bright signs along I-5 will be nothing compared to what downtown could look like in a few years, and the city is making it impossible to undo any of the damage this will cause.

“This is a special deal any business would be foolish not to jump on, and it is at the public’s expense.”

That’s a lot to digest. So let’s back up.

The deal before the City Council would finally pave the way for Lamar to get down solely to the business of outdoor advertising, with considerable restrictions. The idea, according to Mayor Marilyn Strickland, is to make sure billboards are placed “where they really belong.”

“I think the billboard mailer asserts that we’re just going to add more billboards in every single neighborhood in Tacoma,” the mayor said, calling the implication untrue and disrespectful to the extensive public process that has preceded the proposal before the council.

Under that proposal, billboards would be barred from residential, shoreline, conservation and historic districts, keeping the signage mainly to arterial streets in mixed-used and commercial districts.

Equally true is the fact that some new billboards corridors would be created, which is a real cause for concern for many.

Meanwhile, the likely net billboard loss from the 294 Lamar currently has in Tacoma — a reduction of 69 — doesn’t feel like a true victory for the city, as I’ve said before. But there is something to be said for the substantial reduction we’ve seen over the last two decades as the city has done battle with Clear Channel and now Lamar.

Most troubling, however, is what the deal might mean for the future.

As we’ve reported, Tacoma would be tied into paying Lamar fair-market value if City Council amended the ordinance in the future in a way that would require the sign company to remove any of its billboards. That could be costly, or more likely prohibitive.

Where does this leave us?

For Lamar, the proposed deal would effectively put an end to the years-long billboard squabble with the city of Tacoma. The appeal is obvious.

For others in the billboard business — like, say, Sun Outdoor Advertising — it might make doing business in Tacoma more difficult.

Perhaps the impetus for the mailer is equally obvious, then.

“The city is being presented a false choice, but the only way to fix that is with public input and involvement,” Schnitzer said. “A mailer seemed the most efficient way to change that.”

So does all of this preview a scenario where anti-billboard activists and a billboard company will be joining forces toward a common goal — the defeat of a proposal that neither want to see come to fruition?

Politics makes for strange bedfellows.

  Comments