Signs of the Times

As the county tries to determine who illegally cut some trees, various battles over billboards rage on

Billboard battles are a recurring Tucson saga, and the latest chapter has people scratching their heads: It's the simple mystery of who inappropriately cut the tops off of the mature trees in front of a billboard on Oracle Road.

Located immediately adjacent to Pima County's Rillito River Park, the Clear Channel Outdoor billboard is on Metro Auto Wholesale's property. Even though the large sign is way up in the air, the trees apparently were partially blocking the billboard from the eyes of tens of thousands of motorists who drive by daily.

That was the situation--until someone using a cherry picker lopped off the tops of the trees on a weekend several weeks ago. The cutter or cutters didn't do a great job, leaving the trees looking more like a little boy with a bad crew cut than well-pruned vegetation.

But at least the culprits were kind enough to pile the remains of their work neatly on Metro Auto's property.

"We had nothing to do with trimming those trees," declares Dave Sitton of Clear Channel. "We have no knowledge of it."

A spokesman for State Farm Insurance Company, whose ad is on the billboard, also denies knowing who cut the trees. As for Metro Auto, they didn't respond to two calls seeking comment.

Metro Auto has several times in the past unsuccessfully asked the county to trim the trees. But according to county officials, in this case, Metro Auto management denies any involvement.

Pima County representatives would like to know who cut the almost 20-year-old trees without permission. If anyone saw anything, they're asked to call the County's Natural Resources Park Division at 877-6000.

Longtime billboard industry critic Mark Mayer points out that there is an apparent pattern when it comes to vegetation blocking billboards. He says recently trees have also mysteriously disappeared from the fronts of two signs on South Palo Verde Road.

Something that's not going to disappear anytime soon: the ongoing court case between the city of Tucson and Clear Channel. City Hall claims there are more than 200 illegal billboards around town, while the company has strenuously fought to defend them.

Given the time-consuming complexity of the case, a "mini-trial" involving 10 of the signs was held last year. Even though Clear Channel got to pick most of the billboards to be considered, the court ordered five of the signs removed, two others relocated and another reduced in size. The implementation of the decision, however, was delayed pending an appeal.

The trial's next phase is set to begin on Sept. 10, and will start with a look at another 10 billboards. Several of them were allegedly erected without building permits, and others were put up in land-use zones which don't allow billboards--including one sign that's apparently more than 500 feet from the proper zone.

While neither the city's attorney nor Clear Channel's attorney returned phone calls seeking comment on the litigation, it will be the continuation of 12 years of legal struggles over hundreds of signs.

Meanwhile, the first anniversary of a settlement between Pima County and Clear Channel concerning billboards located in unincorporated areas recently passed. Under the agreement, the company was required by last week to remove 18 billboards and modify 23 others.

Citing the nature of the relationship his company has with the city of Tucson, Sitton declined to comment on the settlement. He indicated he would ask another Clear Channel spokesman to do so, but another spokesman never called.

But Joy Herr-Cardillo, an attorney at the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, had no reluctance in commenting. She was a member of the citizens' team which negotiated the settlement.

"It essentially looks like everything required to be completed will be, but it hasn't been a cakewalk," she says. "It required monitoring (of the billboards) and was pretty much a struggle."

Meanwhile, the city is considering substantive changes to its sign code. In June, the City Council held a public hearing on amending the code, but postponed a decision while asking that changes that only reformat the existing code be separated out from those that substantially modify it. The motion also called for "full public review to include all stakeholders" in the discussion.

The city staff asked people who spoke at the June public hearing--along with some others--to review the issues. Since their decisions could eventually affect the legality of some existing billboards--because the signs are believed to violate the current code--Mayer was left feeling uncomfortable.

"The whole thing has been set up to handpick who determines what's substantive," he says. "The city staff is trying to set this group up as a shadow sign-code committee."

Craig Gross of the Development Services Department says the committee will definitely be involved with the process.

"We told the new citizens' group that anything (they recommend) that changes the present Citizen Sign Code Committee recommendation will have to go back to the committee. ... We also said anything new they brought up would be put off until the end of the process and then would be submitted to the Sign Code Committee."

Another public hearing on the sign code is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 25. After that, any other proposed changes to the code may or may not go forward to the City Council.

Perhaps by the time the City Council reviews the proposed code changes, the culprits who cut the trees in front of the billboard on Oracle Road will have been identified.

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