Politics & Government

Tacoma plans to begin enforcing years-old billboard law

The city of Tacoma, after years of trying to rework its billboard law to satisfy both the public and billboard owners, will begin next year enforcing the city law that’s been on the books all along.

Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax told the City Council on Tuesday that recent proposals for new billboard regulations don’t go far enough and that efforts to settle billboard owners’ legal claims have largely failed.

The majority of billboards in Tacoma are owned by Clear Channel Outdoor. Clear Channel sued Tacoma in 2007, just before a deadline to remove billboards the city deemed too large, too ugly or too disruptive.

To end that court fight, the council made a deal with Clear Channel in which the company would 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.

Three years ago, both parties then agreed to pause legal arguments by entering into a “standstill agreement.”

Both agreed to meet and discuss a sign consolidation plan under which Clear Channel would relocate billboards in “sensitive areas” to places where the city said billboards would be OK.

Broadnax told a quorum of five council members Tuesday that none of three plans developed in the last year does enough to reduce the number of billboards, avoid legal tussles with billboard owners and protect “sensitive areas” in Tacoma. The three proposals include one outlined by a citizen working group last winter, a recommendation by the city planning commission and a staff alternative.

“I want to be very clear that my view of ‘substantial reduction’ is a 50 to 75 percent reduction of structures, including all those in the most sensitive areas of the city,” Broadnax said.

The city plans to enforce its current code, which was most recently updated in 2011. That law includes a 500-foot buffer between other billboards, residential districts, parks, historic districts and some other areas.

It also includes amortization, which allows billboard owners to profit from noncomforming structures before their removal. Amortization has been part of city law since 1997 and is the reason Clear Channel sued in the first place.

“Absent a settlement or agreed-upon solution for significant reduction, it’s what we are left with,” City Councilman Marty Campbell said Tuesday. “So we are back to pursuing amortization for removal of billboards.”

While councilmembers have said for years that a legal fight with Clear Channel would be too expensive and time-consuming, Broadnax told The News Tribune last month that whatever cost analysis supports that assertion probably “hasn’t been refreshed” recently.

Broadnax said he plans to explore the city’s enforcement options and offer a proposal on an enforcement strategy after the new year.

Pam Guinn, president and general manager of Clear Channel Outdoor, said Tuesday that she’s OK with a pause in the billboard debate, especially because so many possible regulations have been floated in the past few months.

“We’d rather have the right solution than a hasty solution,” she said.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports

News Tribune reporter Kathleen Cooper contributed to this report.