Reverse the billboard vote

Reverse the billboard vote

May 24th, 2011 in Opinion Times

City Council members made a mistake two weeks ago when they voted, albeit by a narrow 5-4 margin, to allow a large, new billboard with blinking lights to be erected at a busy intersection near Hamilton Place, all because a billboard inspector mistakenly had approved a permit for a billboard that clearly violated the city's billboard rules and the valued Scenic Corridor restrictions. If at least one of the five council members who voted to let the mistake dictate that result will vote tonight to reverse course, the unconscionable vote may be corrected.

It might result in a court fight, but preserving the city's rules to limit further billboard blight is worth a court fight.

The City Council has been wise enough over the past two decades to create and strengthen its billboard restrictions. Indeed, it has added dozens of roadways to the list of protected Scenic Corridors to prevent the proliferation of billboards as new commercial areas are developed. To see a list of the latter, see Chapter Five of the City Code, at http://www.chattanooga.gov/City_Council/110_Code.asp

Current council members should be wise enough now to reverse a misguided surrender, taken under threat of court action, that would undermine its billboard codes. If it comes to a court fight, at least billboard companies will know that the City Council is prepared to fight to bar proliferation of more and larger billboards.

The billboard at issue concerns a plan by Fairway Outdoor Advertising to replace a junior billboard that has long stood at the intersection of Gunbarrel and East Brainerd roads with a larger, more glaring billboard. Junior billboards may not be larger than 75 square feet, or about six feet high by just over 12 feet long. The next size category allows billboards up to 380 square feet. The billboard with blinking lights that Fairway Outdoor Advertising wants to put up on the northwest corner of Gunbarrel and East Brainerd roads would be about 12 feet high by 25 feet long, or 300 square feet.

Residents of the area are understandably alarmed. They have been pushing the council to reverse the May 10 vote. They have reason and common sense on their side.

The permit mistakenly was approved in the handling of several requests for permits to update the structure of old billboards, which are allowed to be rehabbed, at the same size, under laws that protect the continued use of billboards that were in place before the city established bill codes. One of these permits, however, requested an upgrade in size, from junior to medium size billboards, allowed under a state law that is not applicable in Chattanooga. The city's home rule status exempts it from compliance with the Legislature's sneaky 2005 revision of state billboard laws that allowed one-size upgrades of grandfathered billboards.

The city's mistaken approval of that permit gave Fairway Outdoor Advertising grounds to proceed with installation of the larger billboard. When the mistake was discovered, the city issued a stop-work order on the installation. That prompted Fairway to sue the city in Chancery Court for $185,000 for lost revenue on the installation, plus lost potential advertising revenue on the larger billboard.

Subsequent legal negotiations resulted in a proposal, adopted by the City Council on May 10, to let installation of the new and larger billboard proceed, subject to a condition that Fairway would not again request a renewal permit under the non-applicable state law allowing a one-size upgrade of existing billboards when they are rebuilt.

If the council lets this agreement stand, it may or may not result in further violations of the city's billboard codes. But it clearly would establish a possibly permanent installation of an offensive, intrusive billboard that does not conform to the city's codes. And it would let Fairway, which owns most of the city's junior billboards, escape without a penalty for submitting a request for a size upgrade under a state law which is forbidden under the city's home rule exemption from that law.

The city should not submissively allow the company to profit from a mistaken approval of a request for a large billboard to which it is not entitled to seek a permit. That is reason enough, on the principle of it, for the city to contest the company's presumed right to profit from a mistake that it effectively originated.

Councilman Jack Benson has promised to seek a reversal tonight of the decision by the five council members who were rushed by city officials to approve an agreement which arguably should not stand. It takes the vote of just one to protect the East Brainerd neighborhood, and the larger principle of fighting billboard blight.