Billboard Bounty

A court decision says Clear Channel doesn't have to abide by codes regarding billboards on two parcels.

Imagine driving towards Phoenix on Interstate 10 near Rillito Creek, you see a gargantuan sign--the size of an outdoor movie screen. It continuously flashes bright, loud and racy commercials.

Sound improbable? Based on a recent ruling by Superior Court Judge Richard Fields, it may not be that far-fetched.

Fields determined that billboard company Clear Channel Outdoor, Inc., was entitled to erect almost 5,000 square feet of signs on two parcels of land it was given in 2001 by the Arizona Department of Transportation. This negotiated settlement was made as compensation for 10 billboards in the vicinity, valued at $900,000, that had to be removed a few years ago to make room for widening the interstate.

The company then began erecting four large signs on the properties (See "Size Matters, Jan. 31, 2002), but did not obtain Pima County building permits nor meet county code requirements. While Clear Channel claimed it was exempt from these regulations since it had a legal agreement with ADOT concerning the land, the Pima County attorney's office disagreed, so a lawsuit followed.

Holding that the county is a subdivision of the state and thus must abide by its decisions, Fields sided with the billboard company.

This ruling dismayed Amelia Cramer of the county attorney's office, who calls it "scary." Fields' decision means there are no restrictions on what can be installed on the property

"Clear Channel could put up a 5,000-square-foot video screen with audio, which would be on 24 hours a day," she says. "According to the judge, anything goes."

Clear Channel, thankfully, says that won't happen.

"The company has no plans to enlarge those signs that I've ever heard, and any speculation they intend to do so is without any basis whatsoever," says Clean Channel's attorney, John Munger. "Instead, they stand prepared to resolve these and other issues out of court and hope the county will work with them to do that."

The Board of Supervisors is soon scheduled to review the ruling in executive session and decide whether to appeal it. Leigh Robinson, a private citizen who two years ago complained about the original billboard installation, wants them to. Calling Field's decision "crazy," she says, "Why have a permitting process if Pima County doesn't have the right to decide what is legal to do in the county?"

As of now, at least on two pieces of land along Interstate 10, they don't have that right. But that isn't the only unusual circumstance of this case.

Five years ago, a representative for Eller Media, which owned most of the billboards on the highway before they were bought by Clear Channel, was notified of the $33 million widening project and that 10 of its signs near the Rillito would have to be removed. These were mostly old, 20-foot tall, 400-square-foot, single-faced billboards located on leased property.

While the company wanted to relocate the signs and enlarge them to be 60-foot, double-faced billboards each having 672 square feet, an ADOT official decided the agency would purchase and remove them instead. But the company owner--and political heavyweight--Karl Eller had a talk with former Gov. Jane Dee Hull.

Within weeks, at the request of the Arizona Attorney General's office, the local division of ADOT was writing the town of Marana. They asked that permits for replacement billboards be issued, since the "savings to the ADOT and the taxpayers will be approximately $500,000."

Even though the Marana sign code specifically prohibits billboards, the town partially complied with the request. In 1999, it allowed six new huge signs to be squeezed in among some existing billboards along I-10 between Orange Grove and Cortaro Farms roads.

When asked to explain how those half-dozen signs were permitted, even though its code prohibits them, new Town Attorney Frank Cassidy replied, "The state made a deal when widening the interstate, swapping for 10 old ones. For whatever reason, the town was a party to it." He also stated the usual procedure is that some type of variance to the sign-code regulation is required, but apparently, that wasn't done in this case.

Shortly after the new billboards were erected in Marana, the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Tucson wrote the governor, complaining of ADOT's involvement in the matter. In response, an ADOT official contradicted the department's earlier position on the I-10 billboards and stated, "In most situations, it is more cost effective to relocate existing billboards than to purchase them."

Local activist Mark Mayer wonders why ADOT decided to work so hard to enrich the billboard company. By his calculations, the 10 signs that previously existed near the Rillito were worth $1 million, but their replacements will triple that value. Calling this a government "gift" of $2 million to Clear Channel, Mayer questions why ADOT is so cozy with the company.

Along those same lines, in April 2001, Diane Miller from the Attorney General's office signed a settlement agreement with Eller Media. It stipulated that in exchange for removing 10 of its signs along I-10, ADOT would provide it with two pieces of property near the Rillito.

Amazingly, however, Miller did not place any restrictions on what size or type of sign could be located on the parcels. Since this is the land covered by the recent court decision, drivers could soon be subjected to a video billboard on a really giant screen--or just four more monstrous billboards. Whichever the case, the community will have Judge Fields, ADOT and the state Attorney General's office to thank.

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