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Ten years ago, the City of Tacoma adopted strict new rules limiting the size and placement of billboards. Nothing bigger than 300 square feet. Nothing closer than 250 feet to a residential area, church or school, historic district, playground or park.

More than two-thirds of the city’s billboards didn’t conform, but nothing happened right away. The billboard industry, which lobbied hard to block the limits, was given 10 years to bring the signs into compliance or remove them.

The deadline is Aug. 1.

But it doesn’t appear anything will happen then, either. Clear Channel Outdoor – the sole owner of billboards under the city’s jurisdiction – is gearing up for a legal battle similar to those waged by billboard owners throughout the country.

The first indication came this week when the city received a response to a letter sent to a Clear Channel representative in Seattle earlier this month reminding him of the approaching deadline, and asking for a schedule by Friday of how the company intended to comply with the city’s ordinance.

Chris Artman, president of Clear Channel Outdoor Northwest, told The News Tribune on Thursday that his company wants to meet with Tacoma officials to work out a solution. “This isn’t something that needs to end up in litigation,” Artman said.

The same day, the city received a letter from a Clear Channel attorney stating that the city’s ordinance was unconstitutional and unenforceable. Even if it was enforceable, the company would be owed $50 million or $60 million to remove the signs, wrote Seattle attorney Paul Taylor.

“Clear Channel’s billboards in Tacoma are worth millions of dollars,” Taylor said. “Absent an agreed resolution, Clear Channel has no choice but to vigorously protect its interest. There will be protracted, expensive multi-year litigation.”

Tacoma’s tightening of the rules came partly in response to the sprouting of billboards on tribal property along Interstate 5 – which the city could do nothing about – as well as a 600-square-foot billboard erected at South Union Avenue and Center Street. Then-Mayor Brian Ebersole referred to the city’s billboards as ugly and obnoxious, and wanted to ban them.

After facing intense lobbying from the billboard industry, the City Council approved the ordinance with a 10-year amortization period that officials said was intended to give billboard owners time to recoup their investments. The action, characterized at the time as the beginning of a slow death for billboards, was considered preferable to an outright ban, which a city planner said would require the city to compensate billboard owners and the land owners who lease to the billboard companies to the tune of $40 million to $60 million.

Since then, the City of Federal Way lost a court battle over its sign code when a business owner refused to comply at the end of an amortization period. Two lower courts sided with the business, saying that amortization period alone wasn’t sufficient compensation, and the city must either compensate the owner for the loss of his sign or allow it to remain. The city appealed to the state Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

In its letter to Clear Channel, Tacoma’s building official appears to concede that the city may need to compensate the company for the loss of some signs, namely those that fall under the state’s Scenic Vistas Act. City officials are still calculating how many they believe would fall under the law, but they think it’s in the neighborhood of 30 of the 193 nonconforming Clear Channel billboards.

Clear Channel’s attorney said the company has 83 billboards that are visible from a state highway and are subject to compensation under state law. He identified the highways as Interstate 5, and highways 16, 705, 7, 163 and 509.

The conservative value of those structures is between $12 million and $15 million, Taylor estimated. But the city would also have a constitutional obligation to compensate Clear Channel for the remainder of the company’s signs, which would bring the required payment up to the $50 million or $60 million range, he said.

In addition, the landlords who lease to Clear Channel would be entitled to compensation for lost rent, Taylor said, adding that he has reason to believe one or more landlords will be bringing a class action lawsuit against the city.

Billboard operators have become highly skilled at opposing regulations, often using the court system to delay enforcement of rules and drive up the cost to local governments, said Kevin Fry, president of Scenic America.

The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization opposes billboards and other so-called visual pollution. But Fry said Tacoma shouldn’t back down. Unless the city’s ordinance was badly written, the city will eventually prevail, he predicted.

William Brinton, a Jacksonville, Fla., attorney who serves on the board of directors of Scenic America, said billboard operators work from a predictable playbook.

“They have three tactics,” Brinton said. “One: Delay. Two: See the first tactic. Three: Delay.”

Local governments generally fare better when they take the fight to the industry, Brinton said. In some cases, it’s true that governments need to compensate billboard companies for taking down signs, Brinton said. But the amount of compensation isn’t specified, and local governments can try to reach a settlement that lets the billboard company keep the sign up for a period of time in lieu of cash.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to the spine of the elected officials and the skill of the lawyer,” Brinton said.

Councilman Tom Stenger signaled a willingness to take on the struggle by noting the city’s successful drive to ban minicasinos. “Why wouldn’t we beat the billboard industry?” he asked.

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