Our collective reaction was we had no choice.
Scenic Nevada was the author of R-1, the ballot initiative in 2000 in which over 32,000 people voted to ban new billboard construction and permits. In a nutshell, we are trying to preserve the people’s vote from further degradation as well as stop further intrusion of billboard advertising on our public roads.
When it comes to billboards, the city council for the previous 12 years has had a different agenda than the people. Within a month of the people’s vote, the city granted 12 new permits to a billboard company in a lawsuit settlement, despite the ban on new permits.
The ballot initiative approved by the voters says, “The construction of new off-premises advertising displays/billboards is prohibited, and the City of Reno may not issue permits for their construction. (Approved by the voters at the November 7, 2000, General Election, Question R_1 – The results were certified by the city council on November 14, 2000).”
Once the ballot initiative passed, the city council had no choice but to add the billboard ban to city code. During those hearings, which took 14 months, the city council agreed with the billboard industry that the new law didn’t prohibit new billboards after all; it just prohibited “additional” billboards.
The city council decided in 2002, over the objections of Scenic Nevada, that billboards would be capped at the number in existence in 2000, when the ballot initiative passed. The city council also added two exceptions to the cap; billboards acquired through annexations and permits granted to billboard companies in lawsuit settlements, of course.
And this is how the city council got around the people’s vote. A billboard could be taken down in one spot, surrender it, and its owner could get a new permit to construct a new billboard in another allowed location. If there was no new location available when the billboard came down, the owner would get credit or “banked receipt” for use later.
According to the city, even though it is a new billboard, it isn’t an “additional” billboard. The billboard cap wasn’t exceeded. It was known as the banking and relocation scheme and for the next decade, the city routinely handed out new permits for new construction in this way.
Because of lawsuit settlements and annexations, the cap keeps going up. There were 278 permits in 2000 and the city testified in February, 2014 that there are now 294 permits allowed within the city limits. Of those, 93 are banked receipts, leaving 201 existing billboards.
The tipping point came in 2008 when the city council agreed to consider adding digital billboards. For the next four years, Scenic Nevada was present at every workshop and public hearing with studies, letters, and a voter survey all opposing digital billboards. We consistently brought up the people’s vote of 2000.
We said when it comes to billboards the city keeps moving in the wrong direction, moving farther away from the people’s vote. Perpetuating billboards with “relocation” eliminated the long-term benefit; gradual attrition. Digitals will further erode the people’s vote and are even more obnoxious, intrusive and distracting than traditional signs. All of our arguments were ignored.
The digital billboard ordinance was passed on October 24, 2012 and we filed our lawsuit on November 16. The bench trial was held February 24, 2014 and the court upheld the city’s ordinance. We filed our appeal March 28, 2014 to the Nevada Supreme Court the day after the district court’s ruling was released.
The Nevada Constitution says a ballot initiative can’t be amended, annulled, repealed or set aside until three years after the vote. The city council set it aside one month after the vote when it handed out 12 permits in a lawsuit settlement. They amended it 14 months after the vote when they approved the ordinance allowing billboard “relocations.” All the while protesting they were upholding the vote by enforcing a billboard cap; a cap that keeps moving north.
We’re asking the Nevada Supreme Court to decide if the people’s vote means something. If it does, the digital billboard ordinance should be voided. It is based on the unconstitutional ordinance passed in 2002 allowing new construction less than three years after the people’s vote. It relies on taking some down to put new ones back up.
The digital ordinance requires billboard owners to take down some existing billboards and surrender the permits to get a digital permit. Another reason, the city says, it is upholding the ballot initiative. Multiple traditional boards would be exchanged for one digital, reducing their numbers.
But there are plenty of exceptions. Billboard owners can also surrender “banked” permits, the credits they received by the city for billboards taken down for one reason or another and are waiting for a new permitted location. The most stringent part requires a takedown of four billboards. But that’s only within the ten areas where billboards have been allowed to cluster over the years. And billboard owners can surrender eight banked permits, instead of taking any existing billboards down. In the rest of the city, the requirement is reduced to two billboards or two banked receipts.
Will the digital billboard ordinance reduce billboard clutter? We think it won’t. Digitals are far more expensive than traditional. They cost between $250,000 and $500,000 a piece. But they reap much higher profits than traditional billboards because owners collect revenues from eight ads flipping every eight seconds as opposed to one.
Owners may surrender a few boards from the less traveled roads citywide to get a digital along the highway. Clutter will remain and digitals will be added to the mix, spoiling the views from our public roads with flashing rotating ads during the day and perhaps shining into people’s homes at night.
If the Supreme Court upholds the digital ordinance, these electronic signs in Reno will be allowed to flip every eight seconds with a different ad, night and day. For now, while the appeal is pending, the city council adopted a moratorium prohibiting staff from accepting digital billboard permit applications.
With good reason. In the event a digital was erected, and the Nevada Supreme Court agrees with Scenic Nevada, the city would have to pay millions of taxpayer dollars to have it removed. Nevada state law requires payment for the removed board and the lost advertising revenue. The taxpayers in Minnesota 2013 paid $4.3 million to industry giant Clear Channel Outdoor for one digital billboard, removed from a bridge in a road improvement project.
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