Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Tacoma again shows signs of a backbone in billboard fight

You should probably sit down. I’m about to say something very un-Tacoman.

I don’t really care about billboards.

Gasp!

Now, before you start compiling that nasty email or taking me to task on Twitter, allow me to explain.

It’s true: Outdoor advertisements, in most cases, don’t bother me. There are exceptions, of course — like the oppressive billboard that used to stand on South Sixth Avenue, near the Salvation Army, that was basically in someone’s backyard. But, for the most part, they just don’t bug me as much as they seem to bug many people in this town.

That said, one thing I can’t stand is when a city chickens out and fails to enforce the laws and codes it has adopted, laws and codes that citizens fought for. And I’m especially critical of a city when it takes this cowardly route because enforcing the laws it has passed would mean tangling with some powerful corporate entity, like, say, Clear Channel Outdoor, the company that owns the great majority of Tacoma’s billboards.

Clearly I was shocked and delighted.

Doug Schafer, chairman of the Central Neighborhood Council

Which bring us to this week and City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s unexpected declaration that Tacoma would be best served by simply enforcing the billboard rules and regulations we’ve had on the books for years.

“Clearly I was shocked and delighted,” Doug Schafer, the chairman of the Central Neighborhood Council and a longtime anti-billboard warrior, told me this week. “I’m eager to pay attention as it progresses, and still finding it kind of hard to believe that the city would actually enforce the existing ordinances. … I’ll believe it when it’s ultimately done.”

Broadnax’s new approach will be to develop a plan for city staff to start enforcing the billboard code next year, which, as The News Tribune’s Kate Martin reported, includes a 500-foot buffer between other billboards, residential districts, parks and historic districts. The city manager’s stated goal is “a 50 to 75 percent reduction of structures, including all those in the most sensitive areas of the city.”

Finally.

Enforcement of our billboard code, and, if necessary, battling Clear Channel Outdoor in court to get it done, is what so many people in Tacoma have wanted all along. We’ve come close a few times, most recently in 2011, when the council voted to ban digital billboards and called for the removal of at least 190 traditional ones — a move that reignited a legal fight dating back to 2007. Ultimately, the city backed down.

The problem is, any move that threatens billboards in Tacoma risks a potentially expensive and drawn out court battle — a litigious road Clear Channel has shown it’s more than willing to travel. It’s that very real consideration that has led to years of hemming and hawing, and the 2012 “standstill agreement” that city officials hoped would produce a resolution.

It hasn’t, and now the city is again showing signs of a backbone.

I’m not passionate about billboards. But I am passionate about my city standing up for itself.

Assuming Tacoma follows through on Broadnax’s new direction — and, given the history, it’s probably fair to harbor skepticism like Schafer’s — most agree a legal challenge seems imminent. The decision will ultimately be up to Clear Channel and Tacoma’s other billboard owners, of course. But a loss in Tacoma, and the precedent it would set, is surely something Big Billboard would like to avoid.

They have to fight this, hard, because they’re kind of fighting for their existence.

Marty Campbell, Tacoma City Council member

As City Councilman Marty Campbell tells me, “They have to fight this, hard, because they’re kind of fighting for their existence.”

It’s this drama that Tacoma’s newest City Council members, Conor McCarthy and Keith Blocker, will step into.

While we know where the mayor and other members of the City Council stand on the matter — ranging from seeming indifference to passionate opposition — it will be interesting to see how Tacoma’s newest elected officials add their voices to what will surely be an ongoing discussion.

Fitting of his background as a lawyer, McCarthy chooses his words cautiously, telling me he would “need more information, and have questions that need to be answered, before providing a comprehensive response as to the merits of any prospective decision regarding billboards.”

Asked to elaborate, McCarthy explains that if the city’s code on billboards is legally sound, we should stick with it. However, he also acknowledges that “the legal and financial ramifications associated with enforcement need to be weighted as part of any decision.”

“I litigate. Typically, it’s the last resort, because it’s expensive, it’s unpredictable, and it’s typically not a positive experience for all involved,” he tells me. “Usually, you want to get people to a place where they can come to an agreement. It looks like that effort’s been made.

I litigate. Typically, it’s the last resort, because it’s expensive, it’s unpredictable, and it’s typically not a positive experience for all involved.

Conor McCarthy, new Tacoma City Council member

“Often times, you reach a point where you’ve got to take the next step.”

Blocker, meanwhile, speaks with fewer reservations.

“I’m extremely surprised at how much of a hot topic this is. Coming from Philadelphia, I grew up seeing billboards all over the place,” he explains. “Where I stand now is, if the people don’t want (billboards), then the people shouldn’t have them.

“Clear Channel might be upset with me about that, but so be it.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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