Following a rambling discussion led by Council Member Neoma Jardon, the Reno City Council barely approved a one-year moratorium last week on digital billboards that ultimately revealed backsliding and a divided council on whether the city should enforce the people’s billboard ban.

In unanimous votes in December and January, the council agreed that staff should bring back language for a moratorium that would prohibit new billboards, both static and digital, until a new billboard ordinance to enforce the ban is adopted.

And city staff did just that, but in a surprise move, Jardon, Mayor Hillary Schieve and Councilman Oscar Delgado switched positions and voted against the moratorium on all billboard construction, dashing Scenic Nevada’s hopes that the people’s vote was well on its way to being enacted. Council Members Jenny Brekhus, Paul McKenzie and Naomi Durer were in favor, tying the vote 3-3. Councilman David Bobzien claimed a conflict of interest and didn’t vote.

A tie vote fails. That led to the second motion to temporarily halt just DIGITAL billboard applications, which passed 4 – 2, despite Jardon’s efforts to persuade the council otherwise. Without it, the billboard industry could have submitted requests for new digital boards immediately. The final tally was Brekhus, Duerr, McKenzie and Delgado in favor of the digital billboard moratorium, with Jardon and Schieve opposed.

Council Divided on Digitals

Brekhus, Duerr and McKenzie remained firmly in favor of a moratorium that covered both standard and digital billboards, with Brekhus and McKenzie calling for enforcement of the people’s ban and no digital billboards.

“We’re not talking about implementing the digital billboard ordinance today,” McKenzie said. “We’re talking about extending the moratorium for [planning staff] to try to get some issues fixed so that we can implement the will of the people.”

A 57% majority of Reno voters approved a ban on the construction of new billboards in 2000, but it has never been enforced by the city. Instead, for every one that came down, a new static billboard was allowed in a new location. Digitals were okayed in 2012 but a moratorium was enacted, halting digital boards, while Scenic Nevada’s lawsuit wound through the courts. That one expired February 1, leading the council to review the city’s billboard policies and the new moratorium last week.

Jardon and Delgado are clearly in favor of allowing digital billboards. Throughout the public hearing February 8, Jardon and Delgado signaled their intentions to effectively overturn the people’s billboard ban. Jardon kept making suggestions to water down the moratorium and to allow new digital billboards immediately. Delgado said he agreed with Jardon but wanted to see if digital billboards could be prohibited in areas that have growing residential
neighborhoods. Mayor Schieve didn’t comment but voted no on both moratorium motions.

“I don’t see how you can call a digital anything but a new billboard,” McKenzie said, warning that digitals were an amendment to the people’s billboard ban. “If that’s the way you want to go, that’s how we need to agendize it,” McKenzie said. “That we’re going to change the vote of the people and we’re going to override what [the people] voted for in 2000.”

Banked Billboard Permits

The moratorium also temporarily halts part of the city’s billboard banking system. When one comes down, and if no new site is available, the sign permit is “banked” until there is one, creating a backlog of 82 unused billboard permits. That scheme was found unconstitutional temporarily by the Nevada Supreme Court in a ruling last June, when our lawsuit against the city was resolved. During the moratorium, permits can come out as new standard billboards, but no more can go into the bank.

Scenic Nevada believes a majority of the 82 permits were voided once the Nevada Supreme Court handed down its ruling. The city attorney’s office doesn’t agree, and told the council the city needs to allow sign owners to use them to construct new billboards or risk lawsuits with a possible payout of $31 million.

“It’s important now to close the bank so we don’t increase our liability,” Duerr said. “It’s important to stop the bleeding, stop the exposure.”

McKenzie said the city attorney’s chart of possible payouts to the industry is a good reason not to allow digital billboards. The city attorney said the cost of a standard billboard is $500,000 and one digital is $3.1 million. According to state law, if a sign has to be removed by government, sign owners are entitled to a payout that equals the cost of the billboard plus advertising dollars lost over the life of the board.

The city’s digital billboard regulations have been on hold since adopted in 2012 because of our lawsuit. And Jardon and industry representatives complained that it hasn’t had a chance to work, but McKenzie had little sympathy.

“I keep hearing we haven’t given the (digital) ordinance time to work,” he said. “That [report] from the city attorney’s office is the best reason in the world to not give it a chance to work.”

The City’s Other Risk

Council Member Brekhus questioned the numbers, saying zero to $31 million in possible payouts was a wide spread and called the report, “a presentation of fear.” She also pointed out that the billboard industry was part of the city negotiations when the invalid banking scheme was adopted 15 years ago.

“The billboard companies were there part and parcel on the regulatory framework,” she said. “It’s their construction that the [previous] city council adopted at that point. Their reliance was always on something they created.”

Brekhus added that there is more risk to the city from allowing voided permits to be used to erect new billboards. “I think this is more risky of an exposure action than the first motion that failed,” she said. “Residents next door [to a new billboard] can find themselves with a cause of action.”

Both McKenzie and the city attorney’s office admitted that someone could file a lawsuit in that instance. But, McKenzie said he had a change of heart about the banked permits, after talking to the city attorney’s office. He said there is credence to the argument that the city promised sign owners their banked permits could be used again to construct new ones. He drew the line on using those permits for digital billboards. “There’s no way you can say that if we allow digitals that is not a change of the vote of the people.” he said.

You Can Help

The new moratorium doesn’t expire until January 31, 2018, giving staff time to make regulation changes, engage the public and the billboard industry and submit a draft to the Reno Planning Commission. But city staff also said they could return in March with some suggested changes for the council.

Scenic Nevada wants the new city council to:
• Enforce the people’s vote
• Ban new billboards, including digitals
• Fight blight and preserve Reno’s scenic heritage

It’s time to finally enforce our vote. Contact the Reno City Council and SHARE YOUR OPINION.

Mayor Hillary Schieve – schieveh@reno.gov – 334-2001
Jenny Brekhus – brekhusj@reno.gov – Ward 1 – 334-2011
Naomi Duerr – duerrn@reno.gov – Ward 2 – 334-2017
Oscar Delgado – delgadoo@reno.gov – Ward 3 – 334-2012
Paul McKenzie – mckenziep@reno.gov – Ward 4 – 334-2015
Neoma Jardon – jardonn@reno.gov – Ward 5 – 334-2016