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Traffic comes and goes, but the billboards remain

In the 1950s, traffic heading south from the UA campus across the railroad tracks often used Cherry Avenue. As a result, billboards sprang up along the street.

Since the opening of the Murphy overpass (on Kino Parkway over the Barraza-Aviation Parkway) many years ago, only a few remnants of that era remain. Cherry Avenue today is a little-used roadway which is split by the Barraza-Aviation Parkway.

"The billboard is not doing anyone any good," complains Bob Netherton about the pure white sign sitting in the middle of the parking lot on his industrial property at Cherry and 21st Street. "There are a lot of problems with the board, and I've been trying to get it down for years."

Netherton built a structure on the property in 1983 which today is used as an auto-repair shop. "Pigeons sitting on the billboard crap on the cars," he declares in disgust.

Having been blank for years, according to Netherton, the billboard doesn't generate any income for Clear Channel Outdoor, the company which owns the tall sign. As a result, Netherton says, they pay him only $31.50 monthly in rent.

"I'd pay $50 a month to get it out of there," Netherton adds in frustration about the sign, "but Clear Channel is so powerful, it's unreal. Their contract is so involved, you can't get out of it once you're in it."

Netherton says he has talked to Dave Sitton of Clear Channel about removing the sign, but has gotten nowhere. Sitton says he can't comment, because the billboard is involved in a city of Tucson lawsuit against his company.

"If I've called Sitton once, I've called him a thousand times," Netherton explains. "He says Clear Channel doesn't take billboards down.

"There's got to be something done," Netherton concludes. "That billboard is nothing but grief."

A few blocks away, four other billboards are also under scrutiny. Located near 22nd Street and Kino Parkway, these signs may be impacted by construction of a proposed grade-separated interchange (GSI) bridge at the intersection.

The 29th Street Corridor Communities are five neighborhoods located south of the intersection. Seven of its leaders recently wrote to the city of Tucson's Citizen Advisory Committee, which is working on the proposed GSI.

"Our view is that all four of the billboards that could be affected by any of the four proposed bridge alignments be permanently removed in conjunction with this project, no matter which alignment is chosen," the letter said.

The group expressed delight at the removal of billboards by Pima County when it redid the Veterans Memorial Overpass (on Palo Verde Road) a few years ago. The group closed its letter by exclaiming: "We strongly desire that the 22nd Street bridge be as beautiful!"

While the citizens' committee will be considering that request, a legal case now in the works could eventually impact not only the four billboards, but the board on Netherton's property as well.

Many years ago, the city filed a billboard lawsuit, claiming that more than 200 billboards around town had been improperly installed by Clear Channel's predecessor companies before they purchased the signs in 1998.

The alleged violations included constructing billboards without proper building permits, erecting them in the wrong land-use zones and ignoring required separation distances between billboards, among other charges.

Breaking the huge case into 10 billboard segments some time ago, Pima County Superior Court Judge Carmine Cornelio issued a ruling for the first group (See "Signs of the Times," Aug, 30, 2007). In essence, he ordered five of the billboards to be taken down, while five others were either allowed to stay or were subject to some type of mitigation.

While the main case proceeds in Superior Court, last week, the Arizona Court of Appeals heard arguments concerning that first set of signs.

Both sides appealed part of Cornelio's ruling. Supporting the city's position, attorney Joy Herr-Cardillo of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest filed an amicus brief on behalf of several neighborhood groups and other interest groups.

"If the trial court's most recent decision is allowed to stand," Herr-Cardillo wrote of the first 10 billboards, "enforcement of the (sign) ordinance adopted by the city will not be according to its express terms, but will be subject to the whim of the particular judge presiding over the action."

Attorneys for Clear Channel replied that Herr-Cardillo's arguments were "really nothing more than a bomb-throwing exercise by less than disinterested parties."

Prior to last week's oral arguments, the Court of Appeals issued a lengthy draft opinion upholding many of the lower court's decisions.

Representing the city, private attorney Richard Rollman disagrees with the trial judge's reasoning in some of the cases. He says that decision allows billboards on land where they are not legally permitted.

Clear Channel's attorney, David Paige, supports some of Cornelio's other rulings (while not addressing the billboards which were ordered removed).

Herr-Cardillo is pleased the draft decision upheld removing the five billboards. But the rest of the court's reasoning concerned her, because it will apply to the remainder of the billboards being litigated.

"On the issues I covered in my brief," she says, "I'm not happy with the draft decision."

At the end of the hearing, both sides were asked for more written information, and the court took the case under advisement.

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