On Jan. 7 it was announced that Tacoma’s longtime billboard behemoth, Clear Channel Outdoor, had sold its concerns in five U.S. markets, including Seattle and Tacoma, to Louisiana-based Lamar Advertising Co.
The move marked a return to Tacoma for Lamar, as the company formerly managed an advertising operation in the South Sound before trading its Tacoma interest to Clear Channel.
Here in Tacoma, the transaction raises an obvious question: What can we expect from our returning neighbor? Should we bake an apple pie?
The question (at least the first one) is an important one because of Tacoma’s complicated history with Clear Channel and our long legal squabble over the billboard regulations we’ve had on the books for nearly 20 years.
And it’s especially important now, given the fact that last month City Manager T.C. Broadnax announced the city plans to finally start enforcing billboard regulations this year.
At a Dec. 1 City Council meeting, Broadnax said he expects enforcement will mean a “substantial reduction,” of billboards in Tacoma, meaning “a 50 to 75 percent reduction of structures, including all those in the most sensitive areas of the city.”
Furthermore, city planner John Harrington says 308 out of Tacoma’s 311 total billboards are considered “nonconforming” under existing code.
I’ll let you do the math on that one.
What we can expect from Lamar, now that the company has inserted itself into Tacoma’s ongoing billboard drama, is impossible to know at this point, aside from pure speculation.
But that didn’t stop me from making some inquiries in hopes of getting a better idea.
What I quickly (and predictably) found out: It depends on who you ask.
We are reviewing the issues regarding the Tacoma billboard ordinance and settlement agreement along with many other important matters in all five markets. Once we have had sufficient time to fully examine this subject, we look forward to working with representatives of the City to accomplish an equitable resolution for all parties.
Lamar Advertising Co. communications director Allie McAlpin
Calls and emails to Lamar resulted in a written statement from communications director Allie McAlpin.
“We are reviewing the issues regarding the Tacoma billboard ordinance and settlement agreement, along with many other important matters in all five markets,” McAlpin wrote. “Once we have had sufficient time to fully examine this subject, we look forward to working with representatives of the City to accomplish an equitable resolution for all parties.”
Sounds hopeful. And, in fairness, the company probably deserves the benefit of the doubt, at least at this juncture.
But plenty of folks don’t harbor the same optimism.
Speaking in general terms about billboard companies, as he wasn’t familiar with all the intricacies of Tacoma’s situation, Max Ashburn, the communications director for Scenic America, called Lamar “kind of like the worst of the worst in terms of their ethics.”
That sets an ominous tone. But it is worth noting that Scenic America is a nonprofit specifically concerned with, among other things, fighting what it considers to be billboard blight. To get pleasantries from Ashburn about a company in Lamar’s business would have been a shock.
Still, he backed up his assertion with examples. In 2012, for instance, a whistleblower accused the company of poisoning or chopping down trees that stood in the way of Lamar billboards in Tallahassee, Florida. A criminal investigation followed, though no charges were filed.
And in 2008, as a lengthy story by FairWarning reports, Lamar was sued by the state of Connecticut after the company was accused of removing 83 trees along an interstate, despite the fact they held a permit only to trim the trees. Eventually, a judge held Lamar liable, and the company agreed to pay for replanting.
Chances are, however, if Tacoma has a disagreement with Lamar it won’t be about trees — it will be over the constitutionality of the regulations we’ve enacted.
And it’s here that the story of Rapid City, South Dakota, may prove helpful.
Lamar is very litigious on maintaining their positions. They have a history of doing this across the country. That’s just the nature of their management.
Rapid City, South Dakota, attorney Verne Goodsell
Back in 2011, residents of Rapid City passed two citizen initiatives designed to regulate the new construction of electronic or digitally illuminated signs. Lamar quickly sued, arguing that the initiatives resulted in the taking of property without just compensation and were in violation of the company’s free speech under the state and U.S. constitution. (Sound familiar?)
In October, a federal district judge dismissed Lamar’s suit, ruling that the company had “failed to plead a plausible claim for entitlement to damages.” The decision has since been appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Verne Goodsell, the attorney representing Rapid City in the case, told me this week: “Lamar is very litigious on maintaining their positions. They have a history of doing this across the country. That’s just the nature of their management.”
The takeaway for Tacoma?
“This whole process that we’ve gone through shows that if the local citizens want to control and set what type of community they want, if they do it correctly, and they have a fair process … they have the power to do that,” Goodsell says.
The potential kicker: “It’s important that they get really good legal representation.”