The Nevada Supreme Court brought us half way home, then last week the Reno City Council knocked it out of the park when it changed city policy to ban new billboards finally honoring a vote of the people cast 17 years ago.

“It’s important to put this to rest for the benefit of our community,” Council Member Naomi Duerr said Wednesday during the public hearing on billboards. “I’m strongly influenced by the vote in 2000 where the people said no. And to me, no means no. I’m very inspired to honor the vote of the people.”

The previous council enacted city ordinances that allow new billboards, despite the law banning new ones approved by the voters in 2000. Since then the city has allowed new construction; when a billboard comes down a new one can be erected in a new location, most often where no billboard stood before. If there’s nowhere to put it, sign owners can “bank” the permit and use it when a new location is found, leaving a backlog of about 82 unused permits. Also, in 2012, the previous council enacted regulations to allow digital billboards, but those rules were put on hold until our lawsuit challenging them was resolved.

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled almost a year ago that the city’s scheme put in place within three years of the vote unconstitutionally amended the people’s ban. But the court essentially said that since its long past the three-year limit now, the current city council is able to enact any regulations it chooses.

Going, Going Gone

The council took two votes to dispense with the previous city council’s billboard policy and directed staff to rewrite the billboard ordinance to include the changes.

Duerr made the motion “to direct staff to draft an ordinance to ban digital billboards,” which passed in a 5-1 vote with Council Member Neoma Jardon opposed.

Next up was Councilman Paul McKenzie who made the motion to end the city’s billboard banking policy. Eliminating the bank altogether is not possible until the 82 leftover banked billboard permits – a remnant from the previous council – are handled. Unfortunately, about 20 could be used to erect new billboards. In a second lawsuit, Scenic Nevada is asking the court to void the remaining 62.

“I move we direct staff to close the bank,” McKenzie said, “accept no more submissions to the bank. But allow the withdrawal of the (20 banked) billboards not under litigation.”

Under current city codes, some of the banked permits expire 15 years after the billboard was taken down; others only have a three-year life. City staff said the new ordinance would keep those expiration dates for the banked permits. McKenzie added that the contested banked permits will be held in the bank and the city will roll the expiration dates so that none expire while awaiting the court’s decision.

No new billboards in Reno’s Future. The scenic view from Interstate 80 in Reno.

Council Member Jenny Brekhus agreed, saying letting the court decide is a good idea. “It’s so rare that the people speak…one party or the other has gone up to the courts to help us figure out where we’re at. I appreciate that we would craft the ordinance this way,” Brekhus said.

City Attorney Karl Hall said the motion “makes a lot of sense” and it passed unanimously. Once the banked permits are either used, voided or expire, no new billboards will be allowed.

Rewrite Expected in August

Next task will be stripping references in city code that allow new billboards. City Planning Manager Claudia Hanson said a draft could be ready by late August. Her recommendation to ban digitals and close the billboard bank, she said, was influenced by community surveys on the new master plan project, called “Reimagine Reno.”

“Over 6,000 people participated in those surveys,” she told the council. “I don’t have the exact numbers, but many, many comments were opposed to billboards in general and most of them opposed digital billboards – one of the main reasons we are recommending not to allow digital billboards. We had no comments in favor of billboards.”

There weren’t many during the hour of public comment taken last week, either, when several dozen people attended the city council meeting. Only the attorney for billboard company Lamar Advertising and two community members spoke in favor; one a billboard and sign employee for 45 years and the other said he owned a parcel with three billboards on it.

The Chamber of Commerce which also favors billboards sent in a letter but did not attend. The Chamber supports billboards because it says about 200 local businesses use billboard advertising. Two other community members told the council that billboards have ruined their property values. William Puchert showed photos of an unfinished billboard outside the backyard fence of his Northwest Reno home that does not have a permit. And Lavender Ridge business owners also showed photos of a billboard cantilevered over their property line, where weddings and other events take place.

Community Concerns

Mayor Hillary Schieve supported both motions to honor the vote. She said the city council and comments from Scenic Nevada and the public shows pride in the community.

“I don’t think there’s a council member up here who doesn’t care about how Reno looks,” she said. “This shows a lot of pride in our community – for all of you to come out and have such huge concerns. It shows now more than ever it’s important to protect the things that are rare.”

Indeed, one after the other, community members asked the council to protect Reno from billboard blight and to honor the vote by banning new ones. Concerns included protecting Reno’s scenic beauty, property values and quality of life. Others asked the council to guard the public against the distraction of digital billboards and preserve dark skies. And some pointed out that small businesses have the ability to advertise on the 180 standing billboards in Reno that won’t be affected by the ban.

Many of the concerns mirrored a voter survey commissioned by Scenic Nevada that show 78% agreed the city should enforce the billboard ban with an eye toward protecting scenic beauty, property values and driver safety.

Scenic Nevada attorney Mark Wray told council members that the billboard industry could only get new billboards through them; not from the people or the Nevada Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court said the people voted and they have a right to vote and they have a right to legislate,” Wray said. “So that means the only place the billboard industry can come to get billboards is to you. You have the power to say yes or no. We respectfully ask that you exercise that power in favor of the people and in favor of the law and that you say no more billboard construction in the city of Reno; digital, static or otherwise.”

Council Member Jardon said she couldn’t support a total ban on digital billboards, adding that perhaps some standard billboards could be taken down in a commercial neighborhood to allow a digital billboard on the freeway. But city staff said that it was most likely that billboard owners would surrender banked permits, because there are so many, instead of removing standing billboards. Jardon also said billboards provide a service to small business.

Council Member Duerr pointed out that times, technology and values have changed beginning with the 2000 ballot initiative, which has continued into the present, as evidenced by the community survey responses from the Reimagine Reno master plan project.

“The great outdoors is the very top tier of our three-legged stool to build the new Reno,” she said. “I think one of the best ways we can honor and appreciate the great outdoors and really fulfill this challenge to ‘Reimagine Reno’ is to move forward with putting brackets around the billboards and saying no more.”

Next Steps

Once drafted, the new ordinance will be reviewed by Reno planning commissioners in late August and submitted to the city council for final approval. We’ll keep you posted on the city’s progress through our email alerts.

Many thanks to the Reno City Council and city planning staff for listening and taking so much time on the billboard issue.

We are indebted to the community for supporting Scenic Nevada’s efforts to honor the vote. Members, friends and supporters donated funds, signed our petition, emailed the council and attended public hearings with us. We appreciate all you have done. This outcome couldn’t have happened without you.