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UPDATED: City settles lawsuit with Clear Channel, allowing “digital billboards” to be installed

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on July 28, 2010 at 10:33 am with 14 Comments »
July 28, 2010 7:40 pm

In a late addition to last night’s Tacoma City Council agenda, the city announced a settlement with Clear Channel Outdoor that will allow the company to replace some of its current “static” billboards with 10 “digital billboards” that can display multiple images.

The agreement allows Clear Channel to construct 10 digital billboards in various locations within 6 months of the agreement’s execution. A map attached to the settlement document indicates 17 “approximate locations” being considered for the 10 new digital billboard sites, most of which fall within City Council District 3, or central Tacoma.

But precise locations for the signs have not been decided upon — and won’t be until Clear Channel seeks permits for them, City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli said Wednesday. Before installing the new digital billboards, the company must remove 53 existing signs and relinquish 100 permits it now holds to build new billboards. Located around the city, the 53 signs to be removed are specified by address in the settlement agreement (see posted documents below).

For each additional digital billboard that the company wants to add in the future, it would require Clear Channel giving up a total of 15 existing signs and/or permits (5 of which must be existing signs). Under the formula, Clear Channel could maximize a total of 36 digital signs in Tacoma, if it gave up every existing sign and permit it now owns.

The settlement involves no monetary exchanges. It is expected to be executed within a few days, Pauli said. Adoption of a new related city ordinance regulating billboards and allowing the new digital ones has yet to be scheduled for consideration.

(Here’s a copy of the full settlement agreement, with addresses of the 53 signs to be removed, and “approximate locations” of where the 10 new digital signs could be located within six months). Clear Channel Settlement Agreement (2)

Before the unanimous council vote to accept the settlement, Mayor Marilyn Strickland described the agreement as a good compromise that will allow the city to better regulate billboard placement and protect its neighborhoods.

“If the agreement is fully implemented, and it may take in excess of 5 years to be fully implemented, the net removal will be 85 percent (of current billboards),” she said.

Strickland added the new digital billboards that likely will replace some existing ones are similar to digital picture frames and will not be “the loud, flashing neon, Vegas-style billboards you see on I-5.”

“We’re talking about billboards that change panels from side to side, so it allows the advertiser to use the space better,” Strickland said. “It adjusts itself for lighting and it’s not intrusive…. It’s a new technology that all billboard companies are moving toward.”

Neither the lead attorney for Clear Channel, or a company spokeswoman, returned phone calls Wednesday.

The agreement effectively settles a federal lawsuit brought in 2007 against the city by Clear Channel, which claimed the city’s current anti-billboard ordinance violates the company’s constitutional free-speech rights. The city ordinance, adopted by the council in 1997, was supposed to phase out billboards that were deemed too big, ugly or disruptive by August 1, 2007. As many as 193 of Clear Channel’s signs met the ordinance’s definition, city officials have said.

The city’s agreement with Clear Channel, which was not included on advance agendas for last night’s meeting, specifically states the city is “contemplating the enactment of an ordinance” that would allow “digital bulletin billboard signs in exchange for the removal of existing billboard signs and/or the relinquishment of pending relocation permits.”

“The effect of such an ordinance would be to significantly and permanently reduce the number of billboard structures in the City,” the agreement document states.

According to settlement documents, “digital billboard shall mean a billboard that uses digital technology that produces static images which are changed remotely.”

“Digital billboards may not scroll, flash or feature motion pictures,” the agreement states, adding that such billboards will provide “greater, faster (almost instantaneous) and more effective dissemination of `amber alert’ messages” and “the use of new and greener materials and technology in sign structures.”

The only member of the public to speak about the agreement last night was local political cartoonist RR Anderson, who opposed the settlement. Anderson, who spoke before Strickland explained details of the settlement, expressed concerns that the new digital billboards will amount to a “perpetual psychic attack on our citizens.”

“You’re about to give Clear Channel — an inhuman corporation — domain over the minds of our lower income families,” he said. “If you notice this map (where the new billboards will be located), these are communities, they aren’t just dots on a map.”

Anderson added that by his count, Clear Channel would have been fined more than $25 million for not complying with the anti-billboard ordinance had it not “dragged (the issue) out in the courts.”

“That could fill a lot of potholes,” Anderson said.

In her prepared remarks explaining the settlement, Strickland noted a “compromise was sought that would protect our neighborhoods, but respects the fact that they are business districts.”

“It allows the city going forward to regulate billboards in a meaningful and deliberate way and put them in places that the city approves of and where they are more appropriate,” Strickland added. “So again, it’s a compromise, but we were being challenged on constitutionality.”

The settlement issue was not published on the council’s advance agenda. Its inclusion was added to agendas that were handed out shortly before the meeting and made available in Council Chambers.

“Just like all court settlements, it’s not necessarily on the preliminary agenda because it’s not necessarily a sure thing,” City spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said.

“As you know, these (settlement) conversations go on in executive sessions,” he added. “This is the process that we do for all settlements of claims. It is on the printed agenda on the date of the meeting, not necessarily posted on the website” or advance agendas.

Leave a comment Comments → 14
  1. What?
    As if giant billboards were the only channel they had available. There are lots of alternatives. Their first amendment (“free speech”) rights should not qualify over all modes of communication availabe. When are we going to see that first civil suit from the distracted driver who crashed while reading their “protected” speech. And by the way, if I’m paying someone to disseminate my message; how the heck is that “free speech”. We should be able to legislate against this type of intrusion into our space. Was that the 9th circuit again?

  2. JeffTacoma says:

    So, central Tacoma gets 10 ugly, annoying and light up the night billboards, which will make the city look like a casino at night! This is a good deal? This is stupid. Turn the deal down, and keep the lawsuit going to get rid of them all!

  3. “So, central Tacoma gets 10 ugly, annoying and light up the night billboards, which will make the city look like a casino at night! ”

    Or Times Square.

  4. summit98446 says:

    Maybe these knuckleheads blowing things up around town could focus their enthusiasm on billboards.

  5. footballscaa says:

    Evidently talking and texting on a cell phone is distracting, but giant glowing signs on side of the road are not? City council = Money grubbing hypocrites.

  6. troublemaker says:

    Please publish a map of the locations of the electronic billboards in the Central Neighborhood so we can see what part of the city’s neighborhoods are NOT going to be protected by this “settlement”…as well as the locations of the billboards that will be removed to “protect” the rest of the City. Why should the Central Neighborhood be penalized so that the rest of the City can be “protected?” “For every neighborhood that prospers, there is another neighborhood nearby that is paying the price for that prosperity.” Unbelievable.

  7. Whatever1214 says:

    Now all Clear Channel needs to do is work with the schools to make sure we have a population that can read the billboards.

  8. “City council = Money grubbing hypocrites.”

    Would they had won a lawsuit? Remember the Bush Supreme Court gave business entities a freedom of speech green light.

  9. scottsch111 says:

    How this newspaper, with paid employees, can fail to do what our local bloggers have done and post the actual documents is beyond me. You can see them here: http://tacomanewsvolcanotribuneweeklyreporterindex.posterous.com/the-tacoma-clear-channel-billboard-compromise.

    That document includes a listing of addresses of billboards to be removed, and a map showing where the digital versions will go, although it is one poor map. No street labels?!

    My biggest concern is pointed out on that map. It says that these are the locations for the FIRST 10 digital billboards. Uh, what?!

  10. Watch the campaign contributions flow now, especially to Fey.

  11. summit98446 says:

    From a look at the proposed billboard map, the agreement appears to be both environmentally racist & classist.

  12. DrWernerKlopek says:

    When the only one standing up for the city of Tacoma is a card carrying member of CLAW, president of The Traveller Fan Club, part time political satirist and street artist, well that is just plain sad. There should at least be more people out there to defend Tacoma against the evils of Wall Street, their media Clear Channel, and paid off members of the city council.

  13. sharonlee says:

    wow just keep piling on central area

  14. NineInchNachosII says:

    Look on the bright side! Central Tacoma (my home) is about to get a crap load of 20 foot wide screen televisions with no off switches! Sure we could have taken Clear Channel to the cleaners like other “hippie” cities and used the over 25 million dollars in fines ( $2300 a day since 2007) to fill pot holes, keep libraries open and stuff… but I think our council was spooked by being sued and the whole supreme court decision that soulless abstractions like trans-national corporations are people too baloney or whatever. Do you think the rich people in Gig Harbor would compromise on this crap? NO they would not.

    – – –


    clear channel fine counter:


    death to clear channel:


    see more political cartoons by your friend RR Anderson:



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