Billboards

For over 30 years (since the early 1980s), Tacoma's leaders and residents have sought to reduce the blight of billboards within the City.  Central Neighborhood Council board members and residents have been active in that effort, particularly since 2011.

Because the war against billboard blight may be a never-ending series of battles, this page will attempt to present an overview with links to articles with greater detail.

1923: Tacoma Ordinance 7860 (as amended in 1940), Section 10: "It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to construct any billboard within the residential sections of the City of Tacoma."

As of 1959, billboards were expressly barred from C-1 Commercial zoning districts, and expressly permitted in C-2 Commercial zoning districts and other commercial and industrial zoning districts.

1985: Tacoma Ordinance 23401 (5/28/85) enacted special rules for billboards, requiring spacing between billboards of at least 100 feet and separation of at least 50 feet from residentially zoned property and 100 feet from public parks, playgrounds, schools, and churches.  Rooftop billboards are prohibited. Backs of billboards must be covered to present an attractive and finished appearance.

1988: Tacoma Ordinance 24064 (4/12/88) imposed a moratorium on new billboard permits in all zoning districts in which they had been allowed (B, C-2, C-2 SRD, C-3, M-C, M-1, M-2, and M-3), since 73 billboard permits by then had been issued and 37 permit applications were then being processed. That moratorium was lifted by Ordinance 24230 (11/15/88) that imposed new billboard rules: The number of billboards in the City was capped at the number that had received or applied for permits as of 4/12/88.  No more than 4 billboard faces could be along any 660-foot street segment. Street frontage by a billboard-permitted zone must be at least 300 feet for 1 billboard structure, 600 feet for 2, and the zoning across the street must permit billboards. Buffers increased to 100 feet from residential districts, parks, playgrounds, schools, and churches, plus historic districts; and 150 feet from shoreline districts.  Billboards may not be taller than 35 feet, but 45 feet in M-3 zone (Port Industrial). Billboards faces exceeding 300 sq. ft. (12 x 25 ft.) permitted only along 4-lane roads, or 3-lanes if road is one-way only.

1996: Tacoma Ordinance 25933 (7/23/96) imposed a billboard moratorium, amending the City Code section that had stated the billboard rules to read, "Billboards shall not be allowed in any zoning district in the City of Tacoma," with the amended section to remain in effect until new billboard rules are adopted.  The new rules were adopted by Ordinance 26101 (July 22, 1997).

1997. Tacoma Ordinance 26101 (July 22, 1997) basically reinstated the billboard rules from 1988, with these changes: No more than 2 billboard structures with no more than 4 faces along any 1,000-foot street segment. Buffers increased to 250 feet from residential districts, parks, playgrounds, schools, and churches, plus historic districts; and 375 feet from shoreline districts. No billboard may be taller than 30 feet.  No billboard face may exceed 300 sq. ft.  All nonconforming billboard structures must be removed after a 10-year amortization period ending August 1, 2007, or removed sooner if structural modifications are made to it or if another sign is sought to be erected on the same premises.

2002. On 6/14/02 Clear Channel Outdoor acquired The Ackerley Group, including all its Tacoma billboards. Ackerley in 1996 reportedly owned 230 billboard sites in Tacoma, according to a news article.

2003. On 3/31/03 Clear Channel acquired the Tacoma billboards from Lamar Advertising that Lamar had bought from Sun Outdoor Advertising in 1998.  Sun Outdoor in 1996 reportedly owned 90 billboard sites in Tacoma, according to a news article.

2007. On 7/27/07 Clear Channel sued the City of Tacoma, claiming that its 1997 ordinance was unconstitutional. The parties negotiated privately--no trial or even contested court hearings were held--and reached a settlement in March 2010. The City Council formally approved the 2010 Settlement Agreement on 7/27/10 and the lawsuit was dismissed shortly thereafter.

2011. When the City informed the public about the Settlement Agreement and proposed to amend the City Code's billboard rules to allow 14 x 48 ft. electronic digital billboards throughout the City, the public's outcry was heard by City leaders. Click here to go to the Central Neighborhood Council's website page created as part of that public outcry, with documents from the lawsuit, and voluminous documents (including the City's Planning Commission's report) opposing implementation of that Settlement Agreement. Throughout 2011 and early 2012, the City publicly asserted that 193 of the 253 billboard faces within the City were nonconforming with the 1997 ordinance, and 60 were conforming.

2011. On 8/9/11 the City Council adopted Ordinance 28009 that banned electronic digital billboards and made many changes to the City Code's billboard rules, including requiring 500 feet between billboard structures and buffers of 500 feet from residential districts, parks, playgrounds, schools, churches,and historic districts, and also mixed-use (type X) zoning districts and conservation districts.  Billboard structures may have only 2 faces, that must be back-to-back and parallel, with no part extending over a building.  Billboard faces must be centered over their supporting pole(s), no offset or cantilevered faces.  Billboards must come within 10 feet of the street right-of-way, and no other freestanding sign may be on the same site.  The removal deadline in the Code's amortization provision for the 193 billboard faces that were nonconforming under the 1997 ordinance was extended by 4 years and 7 months--from August 1, 2007, to March 1, 2012. That removal deadline also applied to billboard faces made nonconforming by the 2011 ordinance, but the amortization provision continued to require removal after a 10-year amortization period for billboards made nonconforming by any amendments subsequent to that 2011 ordinance.

2011-12. On 8/18/11, the City filed a lawsuit seeking to nullify the 2010 Settlement Agreement, particularly its paragraph by which the City agreed to pay Clear Channel fair market value for any billboard that it ever required that company to remove. For documents from that lawsuit, click here. The City and Clear Channel agreed to dismiss that lawsuit by entering into a 2-year "Standstill Agreement" on 8/15/12 by which they agreed to negotiate. At some point, the City manager and attorney agreed with Clear Channel to a 2-year extension, through 8/15/16, of that 2012 Standstill Agreement.

2014-15.  On 7/1/14, the City staff first publicly reported that there had been actually 390 billboard faces in the City as of August 2012, 54% more than the 253 billboard faces that they had been publicly reporting from late 2010 through early 2012. The staff proposed to the City Council the formation of a' Community Working Group (CWG) of "stakeholders" to study billboard issues and propose alternatives to the City's existing regulation of billboards.  The CWG was formed and met 11 times beginning September 2014, and on 2/9/15 produced a report reflecting the significant differences among the stakeholders.  That report, and much of the information provided to the CWG and some documents provided by its members is posted at this page of the City's website.

The City's Planning Department staff that supported the CWG, and the CWG's consultant/moderator, Karen Reed (a lawyer, former Assistant City Manager of Bellevue), declined to share with the full group or post on the CWG's website considerable documentation and legal analysis provided by CWG member Doug Schafer, an attorney who presently chairs the Central Neighborhood Council and who was very active in the 2011 anti-billboards campaign.  Click here to see a collection of the messages, legal memoranda, and supporting documents that Schafer sent to Moderator Reed, the CWG support staff, and to some of the CWG members.

Fall 2015.  The City's Planning Commission (9 volunteers appointed for 3-year terms) formed a 4-member task force to consider the proposed new billboard regulations proposed by the City's staff (soldiers of the City Manager who has declared that the City will always have billboards). It met five times (about 9 hours total), with three members attending each meeting, the fourth member and an alternate member each attending half the meetings, and made some conceptual recommendations. At a meeting on 9/16/2015, the Planning Commission approved those recommendations, approved the City staff drafting proposed sign code revisions based on those recommendations, and scheduled a public hearing for 10/7/2015 on those proposed sign code revisions.  The actual proposed sign code revisions first became publicly available on 9/25/2015 when the City staff released a notice of the 10/7/2015 public hearing.  The City's webpage with its explanation of the proposed new billboard regulations is http://www.cityoftacoma.org/cms/one.aspx?portalId=169&pageId=15779.   To see the Public Review Document that includes the notice of the public hearing, the SEPA environmental checklist, and the text of the proposed sign code changes -- with an added link to the special billboard rules being repealed, click here.  To directly see the special billboard rules that are being repealed, click here.  It amazes this writer that the Planning Commission, after so little study and with no explanation offered, abandoned the formal findings and strongly worded report urging the City to enforce the 1997 billboard code that its predecessors published 5/18/2011, available here.

Click here download TCNC chair Doug Schafer's 22-page letter to the Planning Commission for the record of its 10/7/2015 public hearing on its proposed billboard regulations. Click here to download the 66-page City's summary of the oral testimony and compilation of written testimony for that public hearing.

The Planning Commission on 10/21/2015 will discuss billboards and is scheduled to approve a report and recommendations to the City Council. The agenda packet for that meeting includes a staff-prepared 16-page draft report and recommended code changes.  Click here for Doug Schafer's 2-page e-message commenting on that draft to commission members and staff, which message has a link to that draft report.

The Planning Commission's Report, dated 10/21/2015, with its findings and recommended billboard regulations was first made public the evening of 10/27.  Click here to download it. I downsized its last six pages of maps to letter-size. For the full-size (36 x 48 inches) huge PDFs of each of those maps, click the following: (1)  (2)  (3)  (4)  (5)  (6).  That report is being presented to the City Council's Infrastructure, Planning and Sustainability Committee at its meeting on 10/28, and that committee is expected to recommend the billboard code changes to the full City Council, according to the City Manager's schedule. That schedule calls for the City Council to hold a public hearing on the new billboard regulations on Tuesday, 11/17/2015, and to adopt those regulations on 12/8/2015.

Nov. 10 and 17, 2015.  To the surprise and shock of just about everybody, on 11/10/15, with the agenda for that day's City Council meeting, the City's planning staff published an "alternative to the Planning Commission's recommendations" and the resolution adopted at the meeting set a public hearing for Tuesday, 11/17/15, for public comment on both the Planning Commission's recommendations and the alternative city staff's recommendations.  The staff is recommmending that it be authorized to cut a deal with Clear Channel Outdoor (a yet-to-be-seen "Special Compliance Agreement") that it appears to propose what courts label as unlawful "contract zoning," or simply a void settlement agreement to circumvent applicable zoning laws. The staff recommendations as published (click here) are almost incomprehensible, but according to what planner John Harrington reported to Tricia DeOme would result in 78 more of the existing 311 sign faces being removed, and restoring to  "lawful" status the remaining 233 billboard faces in the city.  To call this a betrayal of the citizens of Tacoma is an understatement!  This devious, 11th-hour, secret deal process is the opposite of the open, careful land-use planning process that the Tacoma Municipal Code (TMC) and state law requires, as analyzed by this document.  On 11/13/15 the Planning Commission's chair and former chair sent a letter expressing concern about the city staff's unprecedented and unlawful attempt to circumvent the public process required by the TMC for developing regulations concerning land use.

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