The Reno City Council will be asked August 23 to re-issue about 60 unused billboard permits that were recently voided by a Washoe County district court judge, who ordered the city to “cease and desist” from allowing them to become new billboards.

What: Reno City Council Meeting, Item F.2
Where: City Hall, 1 East First Street, Reno
When: Starting at 1 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 23

City Attorney Karl Hall wants the council to reissue the permits that the judge declared void, and to validate regulations that were enacted 15 years ago allowing the permits, despite a 2000 law adopted by a vote of the people that prohibits new billboard construction and new permits.

The City Attorney’s request is included in the draft rewrite of the billboard ordinance requested by the council and scheduled for a hearing Wednesday afternoon. See item number 4 and 5 at the top of the staff report. The draft ordinance contains a ban on digital billboards and prohibits all new construction and new permits, which Scenic Nevada has advocated for many years.

New billboard under construction in Reno along I-580 in 2011. The sign was approved using a banked billboard receipt.

Judge’s Order
On August 2, Washoe County District Court Judge Scott Freeman issued the cease and desist order in response to a lawsuit we filed in February against the city. On the same day, in the first public preview, the Reno Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of the draft ordinance, as it existed before the City Attorney’s latest changes.

This Wednesday, the City Attorney will ask the council for permission to file an appeal of Judge Freeman’s order to the Nevada Supreme Court.

The judge’s order currently stops the city from allowing more than 60 “banked” permits from being turned in by sign owners to erect new billboards within Reno city limits. Scenic Nevada supports the judge’s order and is opposed to the City Attorney’s requests. Scenic Nevada is asking the council to approve the draft ordinance without reissuing the voided permits or reenacting the regulation that would allow them. If you can’t attend Wednesday, please email the city council via cityclerk@reno.gov. Or fill out a comment card.

Enforcing the Billboard Ban

The draft ordinance – except for the city attorney’s new additions – reflects a new council policy to enforce a law that bans construction of billboards in Reno authored by Scenic Nevada and approved by 57% of the people in 2000. We see the city attorney’s efforts to validate a bad regulation and reissue voided permits as a step backwards.

After the 2000 vote, the previous city council enacted the banking ordinances allowing new billboards and permits. When a billboard came down, the owner was allowed to erect another in a new location or “bank” the permit until a spot was available, leaving a backlog today of about 82 unused billboard permits.

The draft ordinance under discussion Wednesday also closes the “billboard bank” to new deposits. Owners of billboards demolished during the past 17 years were given banked receipts to erect new ones in new locations. The draft would stop that practice for good – something the city council requested. And language still exists in the draft to halt billboard applications using any of the challenged bank receipts, until litigation is concluded.

A unanimous Nevada Supreme Court last summer ruled the banking scheme was unconstitutional because the city amended the people’s vote within three years of its passage. The court voided the ordinances but in the same ruling the justices said those ordinances were reenacted when the city adopted the digital billboard regulations, approved in 2012 long after the three-year time limit on changes.

That left a 10-year gap, between 2002 and 2012, which the court called a period of “interim invalidity.”

Re-issuing Voided Permits

Judge Freeman agreed with our arguments that all of the unused banked permits issued between 2002 and 2012 are invalid because the ordinances were void during this period.

“Upon careful review of whether banked permits issued between 2000 and 2012 are invalid, the Court finds the Supreme Court of Nevada’s order unambiguously found the 2002 and 2003 modifications of the voter initiated ordinance unconstitutional,” Judge Freeman said in his Aug. 2 order. “As such, this court finds any banked receipts issued under the unconstitutional modifications invalid.”

Judge Freeman also said there is no legal way to go back in time and reissue them.

“Moreover, the 2012 ordinance does not apply retroactively to cure the constitutional defect of the 2000 to 2012 banked receipts. These findings are based on well-established Nevada law,” he said.

But that’s precisely what the city attorney wants to do – “cure the constitutional defect” by validating the banking ordinance and retroactively reissuing the voided banked receipts. The reason is to prevent possible large court-ordered payouts to sign companies like Lamar Central Outdoor, which owns most of the challenged permits, in lieu of allowing them to become billboards.

Email the City Council

We expected Lamar to challenge Judge Freeman’s order, but not the city because the council unanimously agreed on June 14 to let the court decide the issue. If the council switches direction, Scenic Nevada will face the city and possibly Lamar before the state Supreme Court. If we lose on appeal, those 60 plus banked permits could become new billboards in Reno someday.

Email the city council with your views. Please ask the council to say yes to the draft ordinance without the City Attorney’s additions. Pass the billboard ban but don’t allow the city to appeal, to reissue the invalid permits or to validate the billboard banking regulation. We think that job – to find a way to erect more new billboards – should be left to the billboard companies, not the Reno City Council.