Just before the City Council stepped in to consider a billboard moratorium as a way to “buy more time” for city decision-makers, Tacoma’s planning commission was poised to issue recommendations this month that would call for banning digital billboards altogether in the city.
After discussing options to allow the electronic advertising signs during their meeting on May 4, planning commissioners ultimately decided “that their preferred recommndation was that digital billboards be prohibited outright,” meeting minutes show.
“This is the recommendation that they would like to forward to the Council, and (city staffer) Ms. (Shirley) Schultz indicated that an appropriate code amendment would be prepared to accompany the report and recommendation.”
Those recommendations run counter to a proposed settlement agreement that the City Council forged with Clear Channel Outdoor last July that seek to allow the company to build as many as 38 digital billboards in the city. That agreement has an Aug. 15 deadline.
The planning commission is on the verge of finishing its report and recommendations, and likely would have given them to the council some time after its meeting on Wednesday, Schultz, the city staffer assigned to the commission, told me Monday.
But now, with the city council stepping in to float a billboard moratorium just before the commission had delivered its recommendation, it’s unclear what the commission’s future involvement in the billboard issue will be. The council will discuss and vote on the moratorium ordinance tonight, during its regular meeting in City Hall at 5 p.m. Citizens can comment on the issue.
Several council members have said they plan to consider the 6-month moratorium on any new billboards as a way to give the planning commission more time for considering potential changes to the city’s billboard code.
According to recent meeting minutes posted on the city’s website, planning commissioners have been concerned about the council and mayor’s expectations for their work in reviewing proposed changes to the city’s billboard regulations that would allow for Clear Channel’s settlement terms.
“There was strong concern that the Council has asked the Commission to review the proposed regulations that are inconsistent with the City’s adopted policies pertaining to prohibition of billboards, and that the Commission should perhaps recommend `no’ to the Council,” the April 6 meeting minutes state.
The settlement seeks to resolve a dispute over Tacoma’s 1997 billboard ordinance, which sought to phase out signs deemed too big, ugly or disruptive by Aug. 1, 2007. Before that deadline came, Clear Channel sued the city, claiming the law violated its free speech rights. As many as 193 Clear Channel signs would have been deemed illegal under the ban, city officials have said.
Last July, the council agreed to the proposed settlement with Clear Channel, which would allow the company to erect as many as 38 new digital billboards in exchange for removing nearly 300 conventional ones and giving up permits for another 160. As part of the deal, Clear Channel also promised not to sue the city over the issue.
At the time, Mayor Marilyn Strickland hailed the agreement as a good compromise that would allow the city to better regulate billboard placement and protect neighborhoods.
But, as the planning commission took up review of a new ordinance this year that seeks to allow for the settlement terms, overwhelming public sentiment has emerged against the proposed revisions. About 95 percent of input taken by the commission from more than 350 people runs opposed to the proposed billboard law changes, meeting minutes say.
Commissioners “also expressed their frustration on the inadequate time to fully study the issues and the need for a larger public policy discussion before changing city codes,” the meeting minutes say. “The terms of the settlement agreement represented a shift in policy that in some parts was contrary to the Comprehensive Plan.”
The planning commission noted that it also hasn’t had time to fully study issues related to digital billboards, such as driver safety, and called their revised draft code of the billboard regulations “a work in progress at best.” Ultimately, such frustration and lack of time led the city to consider the proposed moratorium, some council members have said.
The moratorium proposal emerged publicly as an agenda item for this week’s council meeting only on Friday, several days after the council discussed billboards issues during a closed-door executive session with attorneys. The measure calls for up to a six month ban on new applications and construction of any new billboards in the city.
If the city does not pass new billboard legislation that allows for the settlement terms by an Aug. 15 deadline, Clear Channel could walk away from the deal, City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli has said. Even if approved, the moratorium would not extend the settlement’s deadline, Pauli said. She added that the city council already had the option to take as much time as it needed to draft any new billboard legislation without the moratorium.
A Clear Channel Outdoor executive said in a statement Monday that if the city approves the moratorium, it could lead to “costly litigation.”