In a tectonic shift, the Reno City Council unanimously agreed last week to dismantle the city’s longstanding policy of allowing new billboards and to finally uphold the people’s vote to ban them.

Councilman Paul McKenzie asked for extensive changes to the city’s billboard ordinance, and to expand and extend the billboard moratorium, halting permit applications while the city reworks the billboard ordinance.

“I think we need time to give staff the opportunity to resolve these issues we have outstanding,” he said, “in order for us to move forward and enact the vote of the people.”

The changes came about following Scenic Nevada’s full page ads informing the public of the upcoming discussion on the contentious city policy and ordinances allowing new billboards in Reno. Scenic Nevada also circulated a petition, signed by over 400, asking for support of the billboard ban, approved by the voters 16 years ago.

No Question; Voters Intended a Ban on New Billboards

Question R-1 authored by Scenic Nevada was approved by 57 percent of the voters in 2000 to ban new billboard construction as well as new permits. The city, however, continued handing out new permits for new billboards, because the previous council interpreted the vote as a cap on their numbers, not a ban, over our continual objections during the past decade.

In strong language McKenzie said there was “no question” in his mind what the voters meant in 2000 when they approved the billboard ban. “If we can’t issue permits, they can’t build them…There’s no question in my mind what the (ballot initiative) means,” he said.

Under current city ordinances, when one billboard is removed, another can replace it or the owner can “bank” the permit until a new location can be found. Further, the city calls new ones “relocations” to justify allowing them and avoid criticism for violating the ban.

The previous city council’s banking and relocation policy was found unconstitutional by the Nevada Supreme Court in a ruling in June.

“There was a vote and it won by a very significant margin to have no more billboards,” said Council Member Naomi Duerr. “I think it was pretty clearly stated and I heard the message certainly loud and clear.”

Previous City Policy Perpetuates Billboards; New Council Bans Them

We think the previous city council’s policy perpetuated billboards, allowing new ones in new locations where no billboard stood before.

It also created a backlog of 84 banked permits and eliminated the possibility of attrition, voluntary billboard removals coming down over time.

Enforcing the billboard ban has been our goal for several years and this result is the best outcome since Reno citizens voted to approve the ban. We went into last week’s meeting not knowing what, if any, action the council might take. And came out thunderstruck by the result and this council’s obvious determination to honor the people’s vote.

The new Reno City Council deserves the community’s gratitude for its spectacular vote to uphold the people’s wishes. Also many thanks to Scenic Nevada’s founder, Douglas Smith, who worked tirelessly starting in 1999 to get the people’s petition on the ballot in 2000.

“I believe we should find a way to meet the voters’ intent,” Duerr said. “I think we should challenge our staff, challenge our attorneys to do that. This is a new day. We have a policy decision in front of us. We have a choice about how we want our community to look.”

Council Member Jenny Brekhus led the charge earlier this year asking the council to review the city’s billboard ordinances, pointing out that if the council didn’t make a change soon in billboard policy, the giant digital displays would start appearing all over Reno. The current moratorium on digital billboards is set to expire in February.

She suggested that the council, “make a statement that we confirm the people’s vote in 2000 and the faithful implementation of that. We ask the planning commission for a new ordinance recommendation that disallows digitals, closes the (billboard) bank and prohibits new billboards.” In short, the council approved everything Scenic Nevada asked for at the hearing last Wednesday afternoon.

Councilman McKenzie added that the billboard moratorium, which now only covers digital billboards, include standard ones as well and should last at least a year. Once the previous city council added digital billboards into the mix, Scenic Nevada sued and the city adopted a moratorium until the lawsuit was resolved.

Invalid Billboard Permits

One of the outstanding issues McKenzie brought up is what to do about the 84 banked permits, created by the previous city council policy. McKenzie, Duerr and Brekhus disagreed with the city attorney’s assertion that the city is on the hook and would have to pay sign owners or possibly face lawsuits for banked permits, if they aren’t allowed to use them to erect standard or digital billboards.

Following our lawsuit against the city, the Nevada Supreme Court said the banking and relocation scheme enacted in 2002 was unconstitutional. In a unanimous decision the court temporarily voided the city’s ordinances allowing new billboards, making the banked permits handed out in that time period invalid.

City’s Obligation for Banked Permits

McKenzie noted that there are two types of billboard removals, voluntary and required. City planning staff said that of the 84 banked permits, perhaps five represent billboards that were required to be removed. State law says that billboard owners must be compensated for those, unless they are relocated.

All three council members agreed the city had no responsibility to reimburse sign owners for billboards voluntarily removed, with McKenzie indicating that most of those banked permits were invalid because of the state Supreme Court ruling.

He argued sign owners who volunteered to remove billboards and bank the permits may have assumed that they could get a new billboard at some time, but that was not a “relocation right” as the city attorney claimed.

“That assumption is not something we have an obligation to protect,” McKenzie said. Both Duerr and Brekhus agreed with Duerr saying the bank permits did not provide a guarantee of new billboards and Brekhus adding that the city litigated against Scenic Nevada and shouldn’t shy away from the possibility of billboard owners’ lawsuits.

“My thoughts…are that we direct staff to close the bank and not accept any more signs in the bank,” McKenzie said. “And we work through this issue of what happens to the signs in the bank, which ones we have liability for.”

The city attorney said the city would be in a difficult position if it didn’t allow sign owners to use all of their banked permits to erect new billboards. But Brekhus said, “That’s not honoring the voters’ will.”

“We went up against Scenic Nevada for 16 years. If we have to go against bank claims, we’ll go against bank claims. We shouldn’t be scared of that,” she said.

More Work to be Done

The council plans to vote in January on a formal resolution extending and expanding the moratorium. At that time, staff is expected to bring back an ordinance revision, closing the billboard bank and council will discuss further staff direction to develop an ordinance that reflects the people’s billboard ban for the city’s planning commission to review and pass on to the city council for approval.

Thanks to all of you who emailed the council and signed our petition to enforce the people’s vote. Your participation made a difference. Find more info and comments on our Facebook page and feel free to leave a comment or a review. Many, many thanks to the council for its unanimous vote.