With the city now in the process of considering changes to a code that now bans billboards to one that instead would allow new digital billboards to rise in Tacoma, city staff will hold a public questions and answers session tonight to discuss the potential revisions.
The meeting, to take place in City Council chambers at 6 p.m., is sure to draw a feisty crowd. Already, a steady stream of opposition is mounting to the potential ordinance changes, which would set the stage for a settlement agreement with billboard giant Clear Channel Outdoors.
We’ve written much about the settlement agreement and how it came about — here, here and here. Essentially, the agreement seeks to let Clear Channel remove its old billboards in exchange for erecting fewer but new digital ones in some parts of the city. The possible locations of the digital billboards can be found here.
Tonight’s public Q-&-A session advances a formal public hearing on the issue set to take place before the city’s Planning Commission on March 16. (For more information, see the planning commission’s web page on billboard regulations).
One of the opponents to emerge is local attorney Doug Schafer, who says he’s reviewed the city’s 1997 code seeking to rid billboards from Tacoma by 2007, as well as Clear Channel’s lawsuit against that ordinance and the settlement agreement ultimately struck between the city and the company.
Among other contentions, Schafer says that instead of fighting to uphold the city’s code — which he says is clearly defensible, given what has happened in other jurisdictions — the city and the outside law firm it hired to handle the billboard case has basically kowtowed to Clear Channel.
Here’s part of a recent email thread that Schafer sent to Sharon Winters, board president of Historic Tacoma (He has since passed the email on the Tacoma City Council):
I believe that the City’s litigation posture should have been to defend the 1997 ordinance. The foundation of nearly all of Clear Channel’s arguments was that the 1997 ordinance only categorized as “nonconforming” those billboards that on July 22, 1997, were displaying a message advertising goods, products, events, or services not sold on the premises. Clear Channel makes First Amentment arguments premised on its assumption (since allegedly no records exist) that some of its billboards were displaying noncommercial messages, or were without a message, on July 22, 1997.
In my view, the City should have sought a ruling early on rejecting that argument, or a ruling that Clear Channel’s lawsuit challenging the 1997 ordinance was barred by the short limitations period for challenges under the state’s Land Use Petition Act. Given the significance of the issues in the lawsuit, it surprises me that the City did not hire a more prominent (and probably more capable) lawfirm to defend the City’s 1997 ordinance, or at least to seek a second opinion for such a lawfirm before “rolling over.”
It is my view that the City could renounce the proposed Settlement Agreement and return to court to defend its 1997 ordinance.