City passes billboard exchange plan

Lamar Advertising will remove 111 billboards in the coming years as part of a settlement that the City Council approved this week that includes a list of new billboard regulations. Tacoma Weekly file photo by Steve Dunkelberger

Tacoma City Council passed new billboard regulations on Tuesday that creates a system for new billboards in the city only when other billboards are removed elsewhere.

The rules come as the latest attempt to manage billboards around sensitive areas such as nature areas, schools and neighborhoods. The issue has bubbled up and fizzled out through several attempts for decades. The resolution is also the product of legal negotiations during the last two years with Lamar Advertising, which owns most of the billboards in the city. Lamar bought the stock of Tacoma’s billboards in 2016 from Clear Channel Outdoor, which had sued the city over the last proposed regulation when they were introduced in 2015.

The resolution came as a negotiated settlement between the city and Lamar, effectively ending the legal battles.

The rules and areas affected by the new billboard rules are complex overall, but the main objective of the regulations is to reduce the overall number of billboards around the city as well as shuttle billboards away from neighborhoods, schools, parks, historic districts, shorelines and other protected districts through a swap that allows them to locate in higher-traffic and industrial areas in the coming years. Seven areas were specifically mentioned as possible locations for large billboards of up to 672 square feet as: 38th, Steele, and Tacoma Mall Boulevard; 6th Avenue from Mildred to Orchard; Mildred and 19th in James Center; Union Avenue near Tacoma Central; 72nd and Hosmer; Pearl, 21st, 26th, and Westgate; and Center Street between Tyler and Orchard.

Only three of the billboards currently within the city comply with all codes for their locations. That means the current 308 billboard faces are considered nonconforming because they are not consistent with the code in one form or another, although they were fully in line with when they were originally erected. Codes changed in 1988 and then again in 1997 that made many of the billboards nonconforming but set up a 10-year amortization plan to phase them out. The decade passed only to flash up again when Clear Channel sued the city as Tacoma worked on plans to enforce the regulations.

That battle led to a new set of codes in 2011 and restarted the 10-year phasing out period as well as established design and buffer standards.

Legal troubles continued.

A working group of residents, business owners and billboard owners formed to study the issue, a process that led to the new rules.

Under the resolution, 111 nonconforming billboards would be removed during the next five years. That would leave Lamar with 183 billboards around the city. Lamar could, however, replace the billboards that were removed from nonconforming areas with signs in other areas of the city. It could have a maximum of 225 billboards in the city. New billboards in conforming areas would require the removal of a billboard, or billboards, of at least the same amount of overall signal area.

“So basically, to get a construction permit for a billboard you would also need to get a demolition permit,” Principal Planner Shirley Shultz said in a recent presentation on the topic.

Tacoma would also pay full market value for any billboards deemed nonconforming in any future code changes. That cost could well run into the millions of dollars.

Councilmember Marty Campbell mentioned at Tuesday’s council meeting that he has studied the trials and tribulations of billboards during his entire stint on the council, and has two binders of documents at the ready. He points out that Tacoma had more than 750 billboard faces either already built or had their permits approved in the late 1990s. The passing years chipped that down by two thirds and the recent resolution lowers that number even further. It also still bans digital billboards, which were a heated topic throughout the years.

“I still don’t think they are right for our City of Tacoma,” Campbell said.

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