Tacoma & Clear Channel… It’s Complicated

Depending on who you ask, the relationship status between Clear Channel Outdoor and the City of Tacoma could be described as anything from "it's complicated" to downright abusive. However you describe it, the two parties have been in couples counseling of one kind or another for years, if not decades now.

Recently the two parties were on a bit of a break, thanks to a "standstill agreement" that said neither would move forward with legal action. As that timeout period nears its end, the City is once again weighing its options for trying to move forward with Clear Channel. 

At the center of the conflict are a few hundred billboard faces owned by Clear Channel, which are out of compliance with City regulations in one way or another. The City adopted the regulations to try to reduce visual clutter in Tacoma. Clear Channel refused to take down its billboards... and that's more or less where we've been for years now. Some boards have come down or been maintained, but more than 300 non-complying billboard faces remain. Stakeholder groups have been convened, compromises discussed... but no happy ending for anyone.

As City staff describe it, the intent of the updated code was never to end up with no billboards in Tacoma, but to move them from their more undesireable locations, like residential areas and neighborhood business districts, to more appropriate areas like heavy commercial and industrial zones. Efforts to move things in that direction, including an exchange program for locations, haven't resulted in Clear Channel moving many of its billboards into the areas designated as okay by the City.

A Community Work Group formed last year was charged with finding compromise - including new places where billboards could be allowed. That group, which brought together billboard company reps and community members opposed to the oversized signs, struggled to come to consensus, and while some middle ground emerged, the group was not able to make recommendations in several key areas, including issues of size and height.

City staff has been working with the recommendations of the work group, looking for solutions to recommend. Some proposed solutions were brought to the Planning Commission at meetings in the last month, and now the ball is in their court. Staff recommendations are focused on developing an acceptable exchange program based on sign square-footage that gives Clear Channel enough incentive to take down billboards in the least desireable locations, in exchange for being allowed to put up new ones in less sensitive locations.

Staff is recommending capping the total number of billboards in Tacoma, and allowing Clear Channel to accumulate a "bank" as it removes billboards from the no-billboard zones. The company would then be allowed to put up new billboards in zones where the signs are allowed, based on the square-footage banked from removed signs. Although it is unclear how popular this idea would be with the company, staff also recommends allowing "pedestrian-scale signage" in some neighborhoods to give more options. Zones being considered for this kind of signage include neighborhood mixed-use, downtown residential, and some commercial. "Pedestrian-scale signage" includes larger poster-type signage like you might see at bus stops or free-standing kiosks, or at street level on building walls.

The Community Working Group recommended opening up more zones to billboards, including the addition of three mixed use classifications, and allowing wall signs in three new downtown zones. Staff is also recommending allowing billboards of some sort in the Hospital Mixed Use classification. Another recommendation was for the removal of some design restrictions on billboards, although a prohibition would be maintained on locating the signs on or overhanging roofs, or as huge three-sided signs. There is currently no standard for lighting intensity, so the City is working with Clear Channel to develop one; they're also considering "dark hours" during which signs would not be lit.

On-going questions for the Commission (and ultimately the City Council) include: 

  • Size
  • Height
  • Whether height might be allowed to vary depending on the size of a billboard
  • Which additional zoning classifications within the city might be opened up for new billboards (or allowing existing ones to stay)
  • Rules for dispersal - that is how far apart the signs must be (see above slide from the August 5 staff presentation to the Planning Commission)
  • Buffering - how far they must be from protected uses

The Planning Commission has formed a task force to work through these details, and other fun code issues. Rather than focusing on holding Clear Channel to the original billboard code as passed more than a decade ago, City staff has framed the question as one of what meaningful changes could be made to satisfy the community. Would it be removing a set number of billboards? What about just those of a certain height or size? Maybe focusing on dispersion, or just those billboards that are particularly blantantly out of place?

The hope is that the task force could have a recommendation for the commission, and a public hearing sometime in October, with something final going to the City Council for a vote before the end of the year. It might be a tall order, and of course whatever they come up with, there's still a pending lawsuit that could impact or negate any recommendations made by the commission... 

To quote Deputy Mayor Boe, our condolences to the Planning Commission.

As the task force looks at the challenge in front of them, we'll ask you the question City staff put to them: What does success look like to the community?

Catch up on the Tacoma billboard saga previously from Exit133 here.

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