Constitutions Matter - Reasons City Council Should Enforce Billboard Ordinance by Erik Bjornson

Constitutions Matter billboards

Thanks to downtown attorney and KFnet friend Erik Bjornson for sending in the following post:

Just over 10 years ago, Tacoma passed the billboard ordinance to stop the proliferation of billboards throughout Tacoma which had spread into neighborhoods, downtown, and business centers. The billboard owners were given 10 years to recuperate their investment through this depreciation period.

According to a Tacoma City Staff report, approximately 143 of the 193 billboards are currently "non-complying." Rather than comply with the 10-year-old law, Clear Channel has filed a lawsuit against the city to try to overturn the billboard ordinance and waged a media campaign throughout the city by placing "Constitutions Matter" on billboards throughout the city.

Nothing destroys the distinctive character of our communities and the natural beauty of our countryside more rapidly than uncontrolled signs and billboards...

~ Scenic America

The public campaign makes me conclude that Clean Channel believes that the billboard issue is largely one of political will, not a legal one. Otherwise, why waste all of the advertising space for the "Constitutions Matter" message?

Here are reasons for the Tacoma City Council to enforce the billboard ordinance passed 10 years ago and persevere through litigation if necessary:

  1. Tacoma residents have expressed their will through the city council 10 years ago that they wanted most of the billboards in Tacoma to be removed. The current city council should adhere to the residents today, and 10 years ago, and make sure the law is complied with.

  2. There is no "constitutional right" to erecting billboards in cities. Zero. The states of Vermont, Hawaii, Maine and Alaska have legally banned billboards in their entirety decades ago.

  3. Billboards are well accepted being urban blight and most cities have taken action to reduce or eliminate them altogether. Tacoman's wish to be considered citizens and not just consumers.  No city is known by its billboards. Photographers work very hard to avoid them in pictures for a very good reason.

  4. The billboards in Tacoma have infiltrated areas around schools, neighborhood business districts from 6th Avenue, Proctor, South Tacoma Way and Hilltop.

  5. Removing billboards is a cost-effective method for Tacoma to remove blight from the city. There are some 146 non-complying billboard signs. Each sign is approximately 236 sq. feet. Prevailing on the issue would allow the City of Tacoma to remove 34,492 sq. feet of blight that would be permanently gone which city residents would enjoy year after year. Unlike graffiti removal, the blight would be gone forever. Thus, the effort and cost to remove billboards is a wise investment.

  6. Cities are known largely for how they look. It is very hard to improve the image of Tacoma when it is so heavily inundated with billboards.

  7. Billboard are thwarting revitalization efforts in Tacoma. In many places downtown and in the mixed use centers, there are billboards where there should be buildings. Billboards make it economically more difficult to rebuild an area.

  8. Enforcing the billboard ordinance will give a permanent public benefit for future generations.  States like Maine have been billboard free for 40 years. Maine reaps the benefits of their billboard ordinance year after year.

  9. If Tacoma backs down from enforcing the billboard ordinance, it will likely be stuck with a huge number of billboards forever. The city needs to look at the issue long term and not permit the city to continue to be saddled with an excessive number of billboards through the city.

  10. Cleaning up the blightful billboards will improve the image of the city and will change the very essence of the type of city Tacoma is. As James Kunstler explains in his presentation at the world renowned TED conference, a blighted cityscape makes "it's a place not worth caring about." "When you degrade the public realm, you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic lifeā€¦"

Clear Channel has retained a Seattle based law firm who has filed a legal action against the City of Tacoma. No doubt this will be the first of many hearings on the issue. Clear Channel is asking for an injunction against Tacoma to keep the city from enforcing the billboard ordinance. A hearing has been scheduled in Pierce County Superior Court on August 10, 2007 at 11:00 a.m. in Room 2-A.

Thus, there is great pressure on the city council to "negotiate" and concede much of the billboard ordinance both before and after the hearing. If you have not done so already, please contact your city council members on the issue and encourage them to stand by the 10 year ordinance as the issue winds its way through the courts.

Erik Bjornson is a family law attorney practicing in downtown Tacoma. He writes frequently on urban planning and the health of cities in the Tacoma News Tribune.

posted Aug 2, 2007 under billboards, city council, clear channel, constitutions matter, tacoma  


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