Tacoma approves temporary billboard moratorium

Tacoma City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to implement a six-month moratorium on constructing new billboards and modifying existing billboards within the city limits.

The decision is the latest chapter of an issue that has dated back to 1997, when the city approved a billboard ordinance aimed to do away with what the city determined to be the biggest, ugliest, and most disruptive billboards by Aug. 1, 2007. A decade later and shortly before the ordinance went into effect, Clear Channel sued the City of Tacoma and claimed its rights to free speech were violated.

Last year, City Council agreed to a settlement with Clear Channel that allowed 38 new digital billboards to be built in exchange for removing 253 existing billboards and relinquishing the permits for 169 other billboards. Tacoma’s planning commission, however, received overwhelming input from Tacoma residents who opposed the agreement and urged the city to stand by its original billboard ordinance.

The moratorium approved this week gives the planning commission and city council more time to study the issue. It also appears to jeopardize the agreement reached by Clear Channel and the City of Tacoma last year.

Before councilmembers voted on the moratorium, many people testified on the issue. Here are some of the comments from that meeting.

I. R. R. Anderson, Tacoma political cartoonist

Hello, I’m R. R. Anderson operating out of Central Tacoma neighborhood area.

First off, thank you for your courage. Thank you for taking this momentous step. I had the pleasure of reading Lewis Lamb’s [eds. note: should be Kamb’s] muckraker column in The News Tribune where he replied, Ms. Luppens [eds. note: should be Lippens], she was shocked and disappointed. Well, we, the free people of the City of Destiny, have been shocked and disappointed since 2007. We have waited a decade for this industrial blight complex to clean up their act. Since 2007, Clear Channel has racked up over $32 million in fines for their out-of-compliance billboards. If you haven’t been counting, we have been counting. You can see that on FeedTacoma.com ( http://www.feedtacoma.com/forum/tacoma-development-growth/clear-channel-billboard-fine-counter/ ).

I ran into [News Tribune columnist] Peter Callaghan the other day when I was brushing my teeth in The News Tribune rest room and I asked him point blank, “Will the council fold on this issue?” And he said — he didn’t have to think — he said, “Yes.” I refuse to believe in that cynical point of view. I think we elected a strong council of urban designers, people who care about the community. I refuse to be sucked into that nihilist view of The News Tribune. Peter said that they [would] just fold [and] that [Tacoma City Councilmember Jake] Fey would rub his chin profusely before folding. But you can’t believe Callaghan because he voted for [Pierce County Assessor Dale] Washam. I’m an optimist.

The billboards are out of context. Right now, if you go to It’s Greek To Me, you will see a giant new billboard saying go see the poop exhibit. I don’t know if you have eaten a falafel and thought about zoo animal poop, but it is not conducive to an economic strategy for profit. Furthermore, this poop billboard is in front of a church — a historical church — and that deeply offends my Christian value, faith that I hold deeply in my heart.

So, poop to you.

Boycott the [Weekly V]olcano. And, oh, yeah,  constitutions matter. Every single billboard in Tacoma said ‘Constitutions Matter.’ Constitutions matter. I suggest Constitutions Matter 2.0. You can use Microsoft comic sans fonts instead of the font you used really urgently because you guys are a joke and go back to your luxury condo in Seattle.

Thank you and please stay civil everyone.

OK. I think that’s everything. [Digital billboards] are not green, they are energy vampires. Thank you. God Bless. Good night. Do your patriotic duty as Americans and constitutions matter.

II. Olivia Lippens, president of Clear Channel Outdoor

I’m the president of Clear Channel Outdoor. I would like to address ordinance 27982 regarding the moratorium on billboards this evening. I’m here specifically to express how puzzled I am and somewhat shocked I am of the city’s recent move for a moratorium.

Clear Channel has been working in good faith with the city for over nine months under the settlement agreement that the city council unanimously adopted over a year ago. But the language of this moratorium clearly states it’s designed to preserve the status quo, and yet the status quo is the very situation that makes litigation unavoidable. The status quo is what prompted the council to adopt amortization. The status quo is what led Clear Channel to be forced to file a lawsuit to defend our permitted and constitutional rights. Therefore, a move to adopt a moratorium would be a clear signal to us that the city no longer wants to abide by the settlement agreement they signed, but rather return to positions that brought us to the litigation to begin with.

Back in 1997, when the city passed an unconstitutional ordinance to force the removal of signs in the City of Tacoma, after several years of trying to work with the city on alternative solutions, we were forced in 2007 to file a lawsuit to protect our rights of both the landlords and Clear Channel. The city approached Clear Channel in 2009 to begin settlement talks when the city realized it was likely not to prevail in the litigation, and we’ve worked long and hard with the city negotiating in good faith for several years to find a win-win alternative.

But now I have to be honest. We feel a little bit blind-sided by this call for a moratorium that sends the signal that the city no longer wants to honor the settlement agreement it signed and agreed to nearly a year ago.

Clear Channel has agreed for an extension in time from January 2011 to August 2011 to allow the city time to fulfill their part of the settlement agreement. Now in a move that comes as a surprise to us, the city appears to be changing course, and if the moratorium is adopted will send a clear message that the city has reversed itself on that very settlement. The moratorium will take this whole process back to square one and after five years of hard work, it seems like a really drastic move and one that’s entirely counterproductive for parties that have been at the table discussing this.

In addition, the moratorium would prevent Clear Channel from exercising their property rights with the 169 permits we currently hold for re-location and construction of signs. In essence, the city would be asserting a taking over these privately owned assets by instituting this moratorium. It’s also unclear to me how we could continue to conduct routine maintenance on existing lines that are required by regulatory bodies like OSHA under this proposed moratorium.

Clear Channel has demonstrated time and again our willingness to negotiate in good faith with the city, and we believed we had reached a solution — the settlement agreement — that both dramatically reduces the number and square footage of signs within the city with an initial reduction of over 35,000 square feet of signage. Let me repeat that. With an initial reduction. Just from within the beginning of the settlement agreement, an initial reduction of over 35,000 square feet of signage in the city. That’s 178 sign faces with the initial outlay of removals provided within the settlement agreement, which seems to strike right at the core of what the city’s intent was from the beginning of adopting amortization, which was to reduce the number of signs within the city drastically. So the signs and permits planned for removal, I would like to also underscore, represents 40 percent of the inventory targeted by the city from this initial process that would be removed, that’s a 40 percent reduction. I’d like you also to keep in mind that the signs that Clear Channel and its predecessor companies, we have been a part of the Tacoma landscape for over a hundred years. Billboards have been a part of this city for over a century and they have supported local businesses. They have supported local non-profits.

Our signs in Tacoma were legally permitted by the city and they were constructed in accordance with those permits. We do bay [Business and Occupation] taxes to the city, I would like to clarify that, and we also pay for permitting fees as a local business. It’s also important to underscore that 85 percent of the advertisers that use our Tacoma billboards are purchased locally by businesses and non-profits that depend on billboard advertising to promote heir businesses or their cause. This has gone on for decades. I know you are aware that there have been many business land owners and non-profits that have reached out to you. In ending, the settlement agreement is the best and only way to mitigate the problems presented by the status quo. There is no benefit in prolonging this any more.

III. Mike Price, Tacoma resident

I suggest you re-write the existing billboard rules to allow as many electronic billboards as Clear Channel wants with one limitation. All must be no more than 12 inches by 15 inches and must be worn on the body of a paid employee.

This is not a joke.

Channel 5 actually gave a presentation on this very idea within the last two months.

You see, the industry now has the ability to manufacture flexible, light-weight, paper-thin, organic-light-emitting diode — that’s OLED for short — video screens of almost unlimited sizes. Actually, the super-expensive, super-size billboards that Clear Channel plans to use are more than likely OLED-based screens.

Consider the benefits of my plan.

No distractions for automobile drivers, too small to be read from a car, and no traffic accidents. Each worker carries two billboards sandwich-board-style so that they can be seen both front and back.

No permanent eyesores. The employees turn them off and take home at the end of their work day. No angry citizens. All workers must be Tacoma residents. Keep the wages in Tacoma. Require living wages with benefits for all workers. Help laid-off Tacoma residents keep their homes. Many of the small screens for the price of a single super-sized billboard.

Charge Clear Channel only a small license fee. The money they save in fees helps pay for the workers’ wages and benefits. Each worker becomes a sales representative for the product. People can stop them and ask questions.

Most importantly, the workers must be able to learn quickly and change rapidly, meaning they must be educated and intelligent, able to follow directions, which means the best choices for workers will be the laid-off teachers, technical people, and professional people because workers could be relocated on short notice to a new beat, if you will, and the video and audio presentations could be changed in the field by a supervisor carrying a USB thumb drive. So it could be a very rapid change of the message. The people can stop and read or see and hear the messages at their leisure. Again, no traffic accidents.

Tacoma has spent a lot of money training the staff to ‘think outside the box.’ Now it’s time for this council to think outside the box.

Thank you.

IV. Sharon Winters, Historic Tacoma

Historic Tacoma is interested in not only the conservation of the treasures, but the larger urban landscape. We believe many factors contribute to the city’s sense of place, its appeal and uniqueness. We support the proposed moratorium on billboard permitting, and the time that buys for the planning commission and council to thoughtfully and thoroughly address the issue.

Thirty-three people testified at the March planning commission public hearing, 245 submitted written comments with 95 percent standing in opposition to the proposed settlement agreement and sign ordinance. The planning commission draft report to council notes the proposals are inconsistent with comp[rehensive] plan goals and policies for pedestrian oriented development, especially in the mixed-use centers, as well as citing a number of other reasons why the proposals were ill-conceived.

We believe billboards degrade our visual environment and are, in the words of William F. Buckley, who I frequently quote, “acts of aggression in which the public is entitled as a matter of privacy to be protected.” Billboard companies depend on public investment in the public realm to sell their product, in effect creating a situation of compulsory consumption. We do not believe that Clear Channel should be able to exert the visual control of our environment here in Tacoma that was extended to them in the proposed settlement agreement and signed ordinance.

In line with the 1997 ordinance, we believe that billboards should be prohibited in most parts of the city, except the most high-traffic areas, and that these billboards should be limited to 300 square feet. All 193 nonconforming billboards representing four-fifths of all exiting billboards should be removed within a short amortization cycle. These nonconforming billboards are typically in disallowed areas, are too close to other buildings, or too large, and electronic billboards should be prohibited.

We do believe that minor amendments to the 1997 ordinance are necessary to clarify and correct existing provisions, improve the definition for billboards, make non-conforming sections more consistent with other parts of the code, and strengthen requirements for maintenance of exiting signs.