In separate actions, one by Reno planning commissioners and the other by a district court judge, two positive results occurred on the same day moving Reno closer towards becoming a more scenic and less cluttered city blighted by too many signs.

In a unanimous vote, the Reno Planning Commission recommended approval August 2 of the billboard ordinance rewrite that bans all new billboards within the city limits, marking the next step in the process to make the people’s 2000 ban permanent. The Reno City Council has the final say.

Billboard Ban Approved by Commissioners
Judge Grants Scenic Nevada’s Request

On the same day, Washoe County District Court Judge Scott Freeman voided more than 60 unused “banked” permits preventing them from someday becoming new billboards. With the judge’s ruling that leaves about 20 unused billboard permits still available.

There are 182 existing billboards on Reno’s streets and highways that aren’t affected by the judge’s order nor the planning commission decision.

No new billboards in Reno’s Future. The scenic view from Interstate I-580 in Reno.

Community Supports Ban

Commissioners did not debate the arguments for or against billboards presented during a brief public hearing last Wednesday night by billboard industry giant Lamar Central Outdoor, in opposition, and Scenic Nevada in favor of the ban. Instead, commissioners limited their discussion to two general planning questions or “findings” on whether the draft meets the purpose of the city’s land development code (Title 18) and the current master plan.

Planning Manager Claudia Hanson spoke about both city documents and confirmed the draft ordinance banning billboards was “in conformance.” She said the current master plan has a “strong emphasis” on neighborhood designs, pedestrian orientation and mixed uses. Digital billboard lighting, she said, would not be compatible with surrounding neighborhoods and developments in certain areas, adding that comments on the next master plan being developed shows community support for the billboard ban, too.

“We had considerable input for the last two years throughout the public hearing process (of the new master plan) to limit billboards, prohibit billboards, ban billboards, ban digitals,” Hanson said. “I don’t remember seeing any comments that encourages or supports digital billboards.”

Commissioners generally agreed with long-time board member Kevin Weiske that their job was to focus on the findings rather than make changes to the draft, which originated with the city council. Weiske said that knowing the proposed changes were in conformance made it an easy decision to approve the ban.

The council gave city staff direction on June 14 to rewrite the ordinance to enforce the people’s 2000 vote, banning new billboards, and bring it to the planning commission for its review. The draft text makes it perfectly clear that all new billboards are banned: “…the city shall not issue any permits authorizing the construction of any new, permanent off-premises advertising displays.”

The draft now moves back to the city council for more approvals. A first reading of the proposed ban might be scheduled for the August 23 agenda. A second reading, usually at the next council meeting, must take place before the draft becomes law.

Court Ruling

Meanwhile, Judge Freeman issued an order earlier in the day to stop the city from allowing new billboards based on banked permits issued before October 2012. That ruling reduces the city’s billboard bank from 82 to about 20 unused permits.

At issue is whether the city can allow sign companies to use banked permits to erect new billboards. Despite the people’s vote banning billboards in 2000, the city has been handing out new billboard permits. When one billboard comes down, the sign owner can erect a new billboard in a new spot or “bank” the permit until a new location is found, leaving a back log of unused permits.

The Nevada Supreme Court ruled last year that scheme violated the state constitution because it amended the people’s vote within three years of its passage. The court voided the ordinances that allowed banked receipts. But the court also said the city “re-enacted” the voided ordinances when it amended the billboard ordinance in 2012. That left a period of 10 years, from 2002 to 2012, of what the court called a period of “interim invalidity.”

Our position is that more than 60 of the unused banked permits are void because they were issued during that invalid period. Lamar Central Outdoor, which owns most of the challenged permits, fought in court to hang on to them, saying they would be used to erect new digital billboards in Reno.

The Reno City Council, with the city attorney in agreement, voted in June to let the court decide what to do with the banked permits.

Judge Freeman sided with Scenic Nevada, saying the permits were voided when the state Supreme Court voided the ordinances that allowed them. He ordered the city to “cease and desist from allowing the construction of billboards in the City of Reno based on permits obtained from any and all banked receipts issued prior to October 24, 2012.” Read the judge’s order.

Lamar’s attorney appeared at the planning commission meeting that evening to oppose the city’s new billboard ban and suggested that Lamar can appeal Judge Freeman’s order.