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Two large billboards remain, despite a developer's promise to remove them

Just off Wetmore Road, a monstrous Checker Auto Billboard screams "Beat the Heat." On the flip side of the sign is an ad for McDonald's. Nearby on Oracle Road, both panels of another two-faced billboard promote Precision Toyota.

More than 24 months ago, the City Council voted that these signs would be removed by now. They haven't been, and critics wonder if City Hall will use its own heat to get the billboards taken down any time soon.

A few years ago, when Tucson development company Bourn Partners proposed a 34-acre commercial development including The Home Depot on the southeast corner of Wetmore and Oracle roads, the company worked closely with neighborhood residents and city staff members on numerous conditions for the project. Since the two billboards did not conform to Tucson's sign code because of their size and height, one of the city's initial proposed restrictions was: "Existing billboards shall be removed."

In response, the developer's attorney suggested revised language which stated the signs would be taken down--"upon development of specific parcels, areas or phase in which such billboards are located." Rejecting that idea, the city staff amended its wording to require the removal of the billboards "within two (2) years of mayor and council approval ... ."

Appearing before Tucson's zoning examiner and then in front of the City Council, architect Thomas Sayler-Brown represented Bourn Partners. In both cases, he told officials the company was agreeable to all of the suggested conditions for the 34-acre site.

Based on Sayler-Brown's statements, on Sept. 15, 2003, the City Council unanimously approved the project. Mayor Bob Walkup praised the process, calling it "the kind of cooperation that all the council members hope to have throughout the city."

More than two years later, with a few of the new businesses open on the site and other structures nearing completion, the two billboards still look down on passing motorists from a vacant and fenced parcel of property at the corner of Wetmore and Oracle. Brent Finley, who lives about one mile away and drives through the intersection frequently, finds the billboards aesthetically displeasing and wants them removed quickly.

Finley is appalled that despite the billboard-removal condition, the signs are still there. He has filed a written complaint in the case.

"I blame the City Council. The city is responsible," he says.

Development Services Director Ernie Duarte sent Bourn Partners a letter two weeks ago requesting an explanation. In response, a company representative reportedly told Duarte it only owns the land under one of the billboards, not the other, but intends to eventually comply with the removal requirement.

Adding more confusion to the issue, Paul Schloss, a principal member of Bourn Partners, claims his company doesn't own the land under either billboard. Even though his firm has a sign at Wetmore and Oracle promoting the entire commercial development, Schloss declares they don't control the corner property.

"We bought 27 acres, but the parcel (with the signs) is not yet purchased," Schloss says during a telephone interview. "The City Council can make all the requirements it wants, but we can't comply."

The development plan for the project shows five as-yet unbuilt stores tucked into the northeast corner of the property where the billboards now stand. Explaining his position, Schloss adds: "We have (the seven acres) under an option agreement, and expect to purchase it next year. Our intention then is to address the issue of removing the billboards."

Informed of the land-ownership disparity, Finley says he is outraged. "Was the City Council unaware of this?" he asks. A check of the official records reveals the council was incorrectly told by its staff in 2003 that the entire site was then owned by the developers.

"This (ownership issue) should have been known by the city," Finley says. "I hope the council didn't willfully goof this up." Finley hopes that instead of dropping the requirement of removing the billboards, the city pursues it to ensure the condition is quickly met.

Speaking for Bob Walkup, his assistant, Andrew Greenhill, says the mayor would like to see the approved requirements fulfilled. "Clearly, when the mayor and council voted for the development," Greenhill says, "the removal of the billboards was an important condition. It is our policy to expect them to be removed. They (Bourn Partners) would have to have a pretty good reason not to."

City Manager Mike Hein, who was not with the city two years ago, also believes it is essential to have imposed land-use conditions implemented. "It's OK to provide the carrot," he says of the rezoning process, "but you must also have the stick (of regulation)."

Concerning this case, Hein supports an active dialogue with the developers, followed by stepped-up enforcement action, if necessary. "The city surely can't ignore the billboard condition," he offers, "but we should talk to the developer."

Duarte goes further. "This is a potential zoning violation," he states.

"We'll notify Bourn Partners of that and ask for their response. We'll be treating the issue as if they do own that property."

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