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Billboards: Sustainable Middle Ground With Clear Channel Eludes Tacoma
After six months and a dozen meetings, a 17-person Community Working Group returned mixed results in its efforts to find middle ground on the fight over billboards.
Under current code all but three of the 311 existing billboard faces in Tacoma (302 are owned by Clear Channel) are out of compliance, but the company has resisted taking them down, and has been locked in legal battle with the City for years. Legal procedings between the two parties have been in a holding pattern under a "Standstill Agreement," under which neither would pursue further actions, and a working group would be convened to attempt to hammer out a compromise on billboard regulations for Tacoma. The hope was that the group could come up with at least a couple potential paths to bring Clear Channel into compliance - either through removal of boards, or adjustments to Tacoma's code.
The Community Working Group included stakeholders from neighborhood groups, as well as representatives from Clear Channel. They were tasked with finding at least two viable "alternative regulatory approaches" for billboards in Tacoma, different from current code,
As far as achieving the stated end goal in which there are still billboards in Tacoma, but fewer of them, and with less negative impact on the city's neighborhoods, the group came up short. The group's final report, presented at last week's city council study session, explains they were able to find consensus in only a few areas.
Finding a sustainable middle ground between the interests of the community and Clear Channel has thus far eluded Tacoma. It may again. ...
The group focused on three questions. They were able to come to some agreement on the first, but found little in the way of answers to the second and third:
- Where should billboards be potentially allowed?
- What should they look like (size, height, dispersal, etc)?
- How do we get there from here (transition mechanisms)?
Where? Tacoma's current regulations allow billboards in four zones - the three industrial zones, and one commercial zone. 37% of the existing billboards are outside those zones. The majority of the billboards in allowable zones are out of compliance for other reasons related to size, height, and/or design.
The group identified 10 zones where removal of 23 existing billboard faces should be a priority:
- All Residential Districts
- Downtown Residential District
- Shoreline Districts
- Conservation Overlay District
- Residential Commercial Mixed Use
- Historical Special Review Overlay
- View Sensitive Overlay District
- Neighborhood Residential Mixed Use
- Urban Residential Mixed Use District
- Hospital Medical Mixed Use District
They also identified 11 zones where billboards could potentially be allowed, subject to agreement on other code requirements. 242 billboard faces are currently located in these zones.
- General Community Commercial District
- Commercial Industrial Mixed Use District
- Light Industrial District
- Downtown Commercial Core District
- Heavy Industrial District
- Downtown Mixed Use District
- Port Maritime and Industrial District
- Community Commercial Mixed Use District
- Planned Development Business District
- Warehouse Residential District
- Urban Center Mixed Use District
They were not able to come to agreement on the remaining three zones, where 51 billboard faces are located.
- General Neighborhood Commercial (C-1)
- Transitional District (T)
- Neighborhood Commercial Mixed Use (NCX)
Design? Regardless of zoning, 308 billboard faces are still out of compliance under one or more of Tacoma's design standards. The group did not reach a consensus on this, though that may not be impossible - the final report notes that they ran out of time. The report describes "little initial consensus," but a willingness to compromise in some areas that brought the "bookends" on these issues closer.
- Buffers - The group agreed that there could be a reduction of buffers from some uses and zones, but not on how much those buffer distances could be reduced by.
- Dispersal - The group was able to agree that there could be some requirement of distance between billboard structures, but again not on what that distance should be.
- Sign size - At least 60% of the group agreed that signs in industrial areas could be allowed at a larger size than is currently in the code, but there was no other agreement.
- Sign height - There was no agreement on height.
- Lighting - The group reached consensus on not allowing digital signs, but not on any other lighting rules.
- Other design issues - The group agreed that billboard faces must be back to back, that rooftop construction should not be allowed, and that structures must have facing to cover back bracing and frameworks. They further agreed that it is less important to hang onto regulations relating to setbacks, cantilevered construction, screening of bases from pedestrian sight, and other considerations. There was no agreement on rules pertaining to how many billboard faces to allow on the same structure and/or whether multiple structures can be on the same property.
How to get there? Most of the work group supports the idea of an "exchange ratio" of some sort, in which a new billboard would be allowed in an acceptable zone, meeting some design criteria to be established, in exchange for the removal of a nonconforming billboard elsewhere in Tacoma. No agreement was reached on what a precise exchange ration might look like.
Now what? If the name of the game was compromise, the working group was only moderately successful. Now the ball is in the City's court - now what?
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