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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 | 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.

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