A global settlement agreement which preserves the recently enacted billboard ban was approved recently by Scenic Nevada, the City of Reno and Lamar Central Outdoor.

Under the settlement, Lamar will dismiss its two lawsuits against the city meant to upend Reno’s new billboard ban or reap large payouts from taxpayers for prohibiting digital billboards. Scenic Nevada agreed to dismiss its lawsuit against the city to void unused billboard permits, primarily owned by Lamar.

The three-way agreement between Reno, Lamar and Scenic Nevada was inked November 13, following mandatory settlement conferences held in October and ordered by the Nevada Supreme Court. The Reno City Council unanimously approved the settlement at its November 15th council meeting last week. Read the agreement.

New billboard under construction in Reno along I-580 in 2011. The sign was approved using a banked billboard permit which had to be reissued by the city.

City Re-Issues Unused Permits

The settlement agreement ends all current and pending lawsuits, which could have taken years to resolve. It also requires the city to re-issue billboard permits granted from 2000 to 2012, despite a billboard ban approved by the people in 2000. Some of the questionable permits were used to erect new billboards and about 67 remain unused.

After urging from Scenic Nevada and the community, the city council enacted a new billboard policy and ordinance in September to enforce the billboard ban adopted by the people 17 years ago. That ban was never enforced by the previous city council. Instead, it allowed new billboards and new permits on a routine basis. When a billboard was demolished, sign owners were issued a new permit to build in a new location or a “banked” receipt until a new spot could be found. Then in 2012 the former council approved digital billboards, but put those regulations on hold until Scenic Nevada’s legal challenge to digitals was resolved in the courts.

We proved in court that the city’s scheme was unconstitutional and the permits issued between 2000 and 2012 were invalid. Also, the remaining unused ones issued in that time period were voided by a Washoe County district court judge in August.

Meanwhile, Lamar sued the city for enacting the new billboard ordinance. The new ban prohibits new billboard construction, prohibits digital displays and stops the practice of allowing new standard billboards to replace demolished signs.

The Compromise

The settlement agreement is considered a compromise. Lamar gave up its lawsuits against the city. In return the city agreed to “re-issue” all the permits illegally granted under the previous council’s unconstitutional scheme. That legalizes those billboards erected with invalid permits and also the unused permits issued up to 2012. Of the 209 existing billboards in Reno, Lamar owns about 139 and some of those were erected with the invalid permits. Lamar also owns about 53 of the 67 unused permits.

The city couldn’t “re-issue” the permits unless Scenic Nevada gave up its win in district court that voided them. Both the city and Lamar had appealed that ruling to the Nevada Supreme Court, making the eventual outcome uncertain.

Lamar was intent on either a court fight to overturn the new ban or to make the community pay for the council’s new billboard policy. Lamar wanted to redeem its unused permits to erect digital billboards, which are prohibited now under the new ban. The city also was concerned about possible court ordered payouts to Lamar, if the unused permits were voided.

Unfortunately for Reno, those permits now can be used to erect new billboards. But, all have an expiration date and if not used by that date will be voided. Of the 67 unused permits, a city staff report shows that about 30 will expire within the next two years. The final expiration dates are in 2025. Lamar has three banked permits that aren’t due to expire until 2026 and 2027, but under the settlement agreement, Lamar is required to redeem these first.

Tough Decision

No compromise is perfect. And the decision to settle was a difficult one for the Scenic Nevada board. Ultimately, we felt ending all the litigation, including ours, protected the new ban from unpredictable court rulings and the community from possible big payouts to Lamar.

To us, it became far more important to protect the ban we worked so hard to get, than getting rid of 67 unused permits, especially because many of them conceivably could expire before the sign owners have a chance to use them.

Typically, to erect a billboard, sign companies, like Lamar, must find a willing property owner in the proper zoning district and must adhere to strict location and spacing requirements between billboards. We hope the billboard regulations will make it difficult to erect displays, allowing many of the banked permits to be voided when they expire.

Settling brings to a close the long, hard expensive battle to get the people’s ban enforced in Reno. Thanks again to all who helped in this effort by signing petitions, emailing the council and showing up for public meetings. We couldn’t have done it without your help. Next week we’ll send out our annual appeal letter for donations. Look for it in your inbox or mailbox. Please consider renewing your membership or, if you haven’t already, consider joining us by sending a tax deductible donation. Thanks for your support.