Politics & Government

More parts of Tacoma could have billboards, group says, if they meet certain standards

Billboards could be OK in more parts of Tacoma than current law allows, as long as other rules ensure they’re not too big, too close together or otherwise objectionable.

That’s the main recommendation from the city’s billboard advisory group, formally called the Tacoma Working Group. It released its report Monday after 11 meetings in five months.

The group was comprised of 17 people from a cross-section of interests, including residents, business owners, property owners and billboard owners.

The group identified 11 zoning districts where billboards “could be allowable — subject to reaching agreement on other code requirements,” the report says. Now, billboards are allowed in only four zones. The additional zones recommended by the advisory group include the downtown commercial core and some large shopping centers such as the Tacoma Mall.

The group also identified 10 zones, such as residential and shoreline districts, where it should be a high priority to remove billboards and make sure no new ones are installed.

If the recommendations were adopted, the report said, about 78 percent of the city’s current billboards would be in zones that allow them. But the group did not recommend specific design and development standards, because it ran out of time.

The group’s report is meant to inform the work of the city’s Planning Commission if the City Council decides to write new billboard rules rather than continue fighting in court over its current ones. The report will be formally presented to the council at its March 3 study session.

The working group is part of a “time-out” in a legal battle between Clear Channel Outdoor and the city of Tacoma. In 1997, the council passed an ordinance meant to eradicate billboards in the city within 10 years. Clear Channel sued the city just before the 2007 deadline, arguing the law was unconstitutional.

To end that court fight, the council made a deal with Clear Channel to remove 85 percent of billboards in exchange for a few digital billboards on main roads. But citizen outcry caused the council to back away from the settlement and instead ban digital billboards and require removal of nonconforming signs.

In another attempt to avoid litigation, the city and Clear Channel signed a “standstill” agreement. One of the provisions was the advisory group.

Beginning in September, 17 people met about twice a month to develop at least two alternatives to current city code on billboards. Under current code, all but three of 311 billboard “faces” don’t comply. “Faces” refers to the display panel; a billboard structure often has two or more faces.

The meetings were open to the public, though the report notes that public attendance was minimal.

After the group took up the questions of where billboards should be allowed and what they should look like, it tried to address how to make things happen. Current law envisioned the company having 10 years to recoup its investment before having to remove the billboards in 2007.

Clear Channel doesn’t believe that’s adequate compensation. Others concerned about compensation are the more than 120 property owners in Tacoma who lease property to Clear Channel for its billboards.

The group considered eight “transition mechanisms,” but, according to the report, “there was very little consensus.”

Finally, the report contained an update on the removal of billboard faces across town. Since 2012, when the “standstill” agreement went into effect, Clear Channel has removed 81 faces of the 383 faces it owned at that time, a reduction of 21.1 percent of its inventory.

Clear Channel owns 302 of the 311 billboard faces in the city.