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City should stand its ground on bad billboards

Post by Kim Bradford on June 25, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
June 24, 2011 4:48 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

Clear Channel Outdoor demands the City of Tacoma decide the future of billboards by Aug. 15. City leaders should oblige the company and not drag out the city’s moratorium on billboards any longer than necessary.

There’s no reason to hesitate if the City Council’s response to Clear Channel is the right one: Come get your 193 illegal billboards and cancel any plans to erect digital signs within city limits.

The message from Tacoma residents has been clear. They want as few billboards in the city as possible – and if Clear Channel wants to sue, that’s a fight the taxpayers are willing to have.

The 1997 ordinance that outlawed billboards that are “too big, too tall, too crowded together, or located too close to residential or shoreline districts, schools, parks, religious institutions or historic districts” was more than fair.

The city first signaled its intention to limit billboards in 1988 when it capped their number and total square footage. When it decided to adopt stricter requirements nine years later, it gave owners and operators 10 years to recoup their investment on billboards that fell short.

Those 1997 rules don’t ban billboards outright. In fact, they preserve Clear Channel’s right to maintain 360 billboards within city limits, provided they meet the new size and location restrictions.

Even so, Clear Channel seems to view the city’s law as little more than an opening offer. It sued in 2007 to overturn the city’s rules. Now it’s proposing an agreement that is a coup dressed in compromise.

The settlement would not only leave the vast majority of the company’s most obtrusive and ill-placed billboards standing, but also secure Clear Channel’s ability to introduce new potential eyesores in the form of digital billboards.

Tacoma’s planning commission predicted that the settlement would result in the removal of 19 of the worst billboards in exchange for the installation of 10 digital billboards. With digital billboards up to 10 times more profitable than regular signs, Clear Channel would actually come out ahead.

Some middle ground that is. No wonder the planning commission deemed the price of the settlement too high.

Planning commissioners had a suggestion for City Council members feeling squeamish about pulling the trigger, even after 14 years of advance notice: Extend the deadline for compliance another five to 10 years. Better the city do that than invite contempt for city mandates by caving to Clear Channel.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland argues that digital billboards are the future, even in Tacoma. Perhaps. There are ways to make digital billboards less intrusive and possibly more acceptable to some Tacomans.

But that is a debate that should happen on its merits, not under duress. For now, the council should tell Clear Channel it is sticking to its 1997 plan.

Council members can give the company more time to clean up its act, if they must, but the overriding message should be that Tacoma makes good on its word.

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