City Says It’s Legal; State Says It Isn’t

The new Summit Club billboard in scenic south Reno facing Interstate 580 is located on property where billboards were not allowed when the county had jurisdiction. And we think that’s enough to revoke the permit, but the city does not.

Scenic Nevada discovered the issue with the legality of the permit and reported it to the Planning Commission in April, after the billboard was erected. Planning Commissioner Kevin Weiske, citing the Summit Club display, asked for a discussion on billboards which was held May 15.

Meanwhile, the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) notified sign owner Lamar Advertising that its billboard “has been erected illegally” and must be removed, unless the billboard is brought into compliance with state billboard laws. Read the notice.  NDOT has jurisdiction over billboards within 660 feet of the highways they manage, including I-580.

Summit Club billboard facing Interstate 580 in south Reno.

County Wouldn’t Have Allowed It

The property was annexed by Reno in 2005 from the county. County zoning matters because the parcel is zoned Mixed Use (MU) under current city code. And billboards are only allowed on property in the MU zone when the previous zoning designation – in this case the county’s designation – also allows billboards.

The previous county zoning was Tourist Commercial (TC), which allowed billboards but not in this location. Under county rules no new billboards were allowed on segments of Interstate 580/U.S. 395 and South Virginia Street, roughly, south of South McCarran Boulevard.

The Summit Club billboard, towering over I-580, is 60 feet tall and located several miles south of the county’s no-billboard line and not far from the site where the Summit Mall wanted to put up a 70-foot-tall digital sign. That sign permit was denied in 2015 by the city after Scenic Nevada appealed.

Planning Commissioner John Marshall asked staff if the billboard was not allowed under the county regulations, as Scenic Nevada claimed.

“At the time of annexation, based on roadway segment analysis, (the Summit Club billboard) was not allowed,” planning staff assistant Carter Williams confirmed at the meeting May 15.

When questioned by Commissioner Marshall as to why the city issued a permit if it was not allowed, Williams explained that the city code did not “direct us back to other sections of the Washoe County code.”

Commissioner Marshall clarified saying, “So, it’s not whether the sign is actually physically allowed, its whether or not the zoning is consistent.” Williams agreed, saying “that’s the position that (the planning department) took.”

No Prior Public Notice Required

The new billboard was approved by the city’s planning department in December 2018 and the decision was lodged with the City Clerk’s office, where appeals to the city council can be filed within five days. But noticing the public is not required. Scenic Nevada along with most others in the community found out when it became obvious last month that a new billboard was under construction.

Nevertheless, Scenic Nevada tried to file an appeal with the City Clerk’s office after the deadline. Staff directed us to the city attorney instead because the appeal time had lapsed. The city attorney notified us today that our only option was to file a lawsuit in district court.
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NDOT Says Lamar Violated State Billboard Laws

An NDOT official told us that Lamar did not get a required state permit and the billboard doesn’t meet state zoning and spacing requirements. State law only allows billboards in commercial and industrial zones and the Summit Club sign location is zoned Mixed Use. Also, the billboard was placed too close to the I-580 on ramp and residences. It’s located next to the apartment complex under construction, owned by Sierra Summit Club Apartments, LLC.

Lamar has 30 days from the notice, dated May 13, to get a permit or remove the sign at its own expense. Lamar can appeal the notice.

Location Does Matter

We think the location rules should matter to the city. Billboards were allowed in the MU zone in 2006 to maintain the status quo – not to increase or reduce billboard locations at the time – according to the previous city council. See the council meeting minutes.

When the concept of mixed-use zoning was introduced and adopted, staff initially prohibited billboards. Apparently, the billboard industry in Reno complained about losing possible locations.The city council initiated a text amendment to allow billboards back into the MU zone. Scenic Nevada appealed but was told that the city had to preserve the locations. To do this, staff added code that allowed billboards in the MU zone, but only if the previous zone allowed them.

We think staff’s position on the Summit Club billboard is inconsistent with the code and the intent of the MU zone to preserve, but not add, new billboard locations. Scenic Nevada is considering our right to legal action that would cause enforcement of the city code and the settlement agreement approved by Lamar, the city and Scenic Nevada. The agreement ended years of ongoing litigation and preserved the city’s new billboard ban but also allowed the use of left-over billboard permits.

No one can build a new billboard, unless they own unused permits that were available when the city finally enacted the billboard ban adopted by voters in 2000. Lamar surrendered two to get the new permit to build the display along I-580. See the billboard inventory summary.

At the meeting, Commissioner Weiske was concerned about the billboard’s proximity to the apartments under construction. The MU zone allows for many uses, both commercial and residential. Staff explained that city code says billboards must be 300 feet from a residentially zoned property. In this case the zone is MU, not residential, and therefore billboards are permitted next to the apartments.  Commissioner Weiske asked fellow commissioners to consider code changes that would prevent that in future.

Among our objections to billboards in the MU zone back in 2006 was incompatibility with residences. See our letter. We said that allowing billboards in a live/work/shop zone for business and residential would detract from the corridor’s appearance and may discourage the kind of growth envisioned at the time.