By Kathleen Cooper
Should Tacoma allow digital billboards in exchange for the removal of hundreds of regular ones?
That’s the subject of a public hearing scheduled for Wednesday night. Neighborhood opposition is bubbling up, with people concerned about light pollution, energy use and general degradation of Tacoma’s character.
Central Neighborhood Council Chairwoman Tricia DeOme is encouraging residents to come to the hearing. Local attorney Doug Schafer has compiled copious documents online about the plan. On its Facebook page, Historic Tacoma says digital billboards are ugly, dangerous and energy hogs. Britton Sukys, who owns a home near a proposed site for a digital billboard, has started a Facebook page called Turn Out That Light Tacoma.
“I chose to live in an urban environment. I’m not expecting it to be some quiet street all the time,” Sukys said Tuesday in a phone interview from his home hear the five-point intersection of Sprague, Sixth Avenue and Division. He had just returned from passing out fliers in his neighborhood. A large static billboard looms across from his home now, and under the proposed settlement, a digital billboard could replace it.
“You (install) something like that and my ability to sell my house goes out the window. And if I can’t sell it, I have to live here. And what kind of torture is that?” he said, explaining that the light would come in bedroom windows and into his living room. “Your right to corporate free speech does not trump my right to live here peacefully.”
City planner Shirley Schultz said the city has received 26 letters on the proposed code changes so far, most against the plan.
Last July, the council approved a legal settlement with Clear Channel Outdoor that would allow it to install 10 digital billboards after removing 54 of its approximately 253 billboard faces in Tacoma and giving up permits to build 100 more.
The agreement settled a dispute over enforceability of the city’s billboard ordinance, passed in 1997, that had aimed to phase out signs deemed too big, ugly or disruptive by Aug. 1, 2007. Just before the ban took effect, Clear Channel sued.
The council approved the settlement after it was added to the agenda on the day of the meeting, providing no public notice. Only one member of the public commented on it at that time.
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland has said the settlement is a good compromise that allows the city to better regulate billboard placement and protect neighborhoods. If the agreement was fully implemented, which could take five or more years, 85 percent of existing billboards would be removed.
Schafer contends that if the city had defended itself against Clear Channel, it would have won, and Tacoma would have seen a removal of billboards without having to compromise on digital signs. Digital billboards have been banned in more than a dozen major U.S. cities, including Dallas and Austin, Texas; San Francisco; and Denver. The states of Maine and Montana also have banned them.
What’s unclear is what happens to the settlement if the council decides not to change the code on billboards. City staff and officials have said the settlement can go forward regardless. Schafer said he didn’t think Clear Channel would agree to settle unless it got what it wanted.
PLANNING COMMISSION PUBLIC HEARING
When: Wednesday, 5 p.m.
Where: City Council Chambers, 1st floor, Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St.
More: www.cityoftacoma.org/planning, click on billboard regulations; www.cnc-tacoma.com, click on Proposed Electronic Billboards
What’s next: Written public comment will be accepted until March 25. The commission then will make recommendations to the City Council, which has the final say.