Feisty Tacoma and compliant King County face off with a billboard powerhouse

The county prepares to welcome fast-shuffling, TV-style digital billboards. But Tacoma tells Clear Channel to take a hike and turn out the lights.

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One sign says it all... in seven-second increments.

The county prepares to welcome fast-shuffling, TV-style digital billboards. But Tacoma tells Clear Channel to take a hike and turn out the lights.

Maybe it’s the water that makes people in Tacoma so feisty. Whatever it is, the King County Council ain’t drinking it. Tacoma’s schoolteachers persisted for 10 days in a strike that, wise or not, was anything but timid. And its city council last month delivered a defiant rebuke to Clear Channel, the national billboard powerhouse that has cowed, sued, and sweet-talked so many other municipalities into submission. It banned the digital billboards it earlier agreed to and beat the famously litigious Clear Channel to the courthouse to launch the inevitable court fight.

Meanwhile, the bold new electronic future is coming to this county’s roadsides. On Sept. 13, a County Council committee that three months ago had deferred a measure to allow the image-shuffling, television-like electronic signs quietly considered an amended version.  Councilmembers Larry Phillips, Jane Hague, Pete von Reichbauer, Bob Ferguson, and Joe McDermott voted unanimously to approve it, clearing the way for full council approval this coming Monday.

Tacoma and King County are two beachheads in a nationwide campaign by Clear Channel and other "out-of-home advertising" companies to legalize the digital boards, which had been banned under federal highway rules and many state and municipal codes along with other flashing, animated, and intermittent displays. The industry has promoted them as “static” displays, which is true if you only watch them for six seconds. (The images themselves aren’t animated, but they shuffle eight times a minute, with a one- or two-second blink in between; the companies sell them as outdoor TV commercials for a captive audience, touting the thousands of message placements they allow an advertiser.) Clear Channel has pitched them as emergency messaging systems that can flash AMBER alerts, Crime Stoppers bulletins, and other public service announcements as well as ads, often enlisting endorsements from police agencies.

The feds rolled over in 2007: The Federal Highway Administration, reversing decades of policy, ruled that digital billboards are kosher as long they don’t use their animation capabilities and display “stationery images for a reasonably fixed period of time.” The fight has since moved to the states and cities—especially, it seems of late, in the Northwest. Oregon legislators approved digital billboards in June, calling them a signal that the state was “open for business.” A bill euphemistically titled “Authorizing the Use of Digital Outdoor Advertising Signs to Expand the State's Emergency Messaging Capabilities” passed the Washington Senate last session but stalled in the House. Now Tacoma and King County are the local front lines.

The county ordinance will allow billboard owners (in effect Clear Channel, which dominates the business here and in Tacoma) to swap out existing conventional, single-image billboards one-for-one for digitals. The deal that Tacoma has rebuffed was rather more favorable: The company would give up as many as 15 conventional billboards for each digital board it got to erect.

The Tacoma deal didn’t emerge from the goodness of the billboard barons’ and baronesses’ hearts, or even from the fact that the shuffling digital displays are much more lucrative than traditional billboards. It was hammered out as a settlement of a lawsuit that Clear Channel filed three years ago to stop the city of Tacoma from doing something it had already given 10 years’ warning it was going to do: to make owners remove illegal billboards that stand too close to residences, churches, schools, shorelines, or other billboards. The stakes are high: The city estimates that some 193 of the 253 billboard “faces” (some sign structures have multiple faces) within its borders violate a sign law it adopted in 1997. Many other jurisdictions, including King County, have grandfathered in nonconforming billboards like these while barring new ones. Seattle adopted a complicated formula by which Clear Channel could exchange old, noncompliant signs for new, permissible ones.

Tacoma, whose cityscape is particularly billboard-bejeweled, opted instead to order the nonconforming signs removed but gave their owners 10 years — until 2007 — to recoup their investments first. And, like Seattle, it granted them exemptions from a general moratorium on new billboards; they could “relocate” nonconforming signs to legal locations, in effect swapping one illegal billboard for one permitted one, a sort of cap-and-trade for visual pollution. This had one predictable result: Maintenance lagged on the doomed boards, and neighbors complained about rusting, peeling hulks — blighted blight.

Then, as the 2007 deadline neared, Clear Channel changed course and, reverting to its familiar litigation strategy, charged the city with violating its free-speech rights by ordering billboards removed. Last summer it and the city struck a settlement agreement: Tacoma would allow one digital billboard in exchange for every five nonconforming conventional boards and 10 relocation permits Clear Channel relinquished. If it made the company remove any boards or give up any permits without letting it put up digital boards, the city would pay their “fair market value.” Elsewhere, according to one prominent industry critic, Scenic America president Mary Tracy, Clear Channel has demanded $5 million compensation for a single billboard.

Tacoma officials signed the agreement in July 2010. Clear Channel didn’t; perhaps it hoped to get better terms by waiting. (Clear Channels’s real estate director, Michael Mayes, said in email he could not comment on this or other matters related to Tacoma “because of the pending litigation.”) But time was not on its side. Tacomans rose like an Arab Spring to protest the Clear Channel settlement, billboard blight generally, and digital boards especially. Last spring 254 weighed in on the scheme, 95 percent of them against it. Some brought billboard-style placards to hearings, flipped them, and asked the solons on the dais if they now understood how shuffling images distracted drivers.

In May the Tacoma Planning Commission urged scrapping the settlement and banning digitals. The mayor and city council, which had unanimously supported the settlement, signaled they would do just that. In July, after waiting a year, Clear Channel exercised its self-declared “option” and signed the agreement. Too late, said the city council; it voted to invalidate the settlement and ban the digi-billboards. And it beat Clear Channel to the courthouse, preemptively asking a judge to declare the agreement null and void. Clear Channel will likely argue that a deal’s a deal, no matter who signed it when. City officials will contend that the agreement couldn’t become effective until the council passed an ordinance implementing it, which it wouldn’t do.

Anti-billboard activists around the country have hailed Tacoma’s move. “It’s a great victory,” says Scenic America’s Tracy. And, she adds, an unusual one; other local governments have banned the digi-boards, but not after they initially agreed to allow them.

By contrast, Tracy says she’s “shocked” that King County would approve them. But county officials haven’t received anything like the public outcry in Tacoma. A single Seattle-based environmental designer, Paula Rees, has been a solitary but persistent voice in the wilderness, decrying the effects of billboards digital and otherwise. That may be because the stakes don’t sound so high: Only 19 existing King County billboards would be eligible for conversion. But this is, in fact, comparable to the number Clear Channel could have installed in Tacoma. Just one can alter a cityscape, especially if you live near it. And King County may be a steppingstone to a much bigger prize, Seattle, with hundreds of still-predigital billboards.

Tacomans also seem to have been particularly sensitized by the twin spectacles of decrepit, obsolete signs on their streets and blazing digital billboards on tribal lands along I-5 north of town. And the King County Council’s hearings on its billboard bill have passed with scanty media fanfare or public notice. Only two Clear Channel executives showed up at an initial June 6 hearing. Rees and officials from suburban cities affected by the measure protested at getting no notice.

The council committee heard their objections at a hastily scheduled second hearing in June. But the committee members remained highly impressed with the billboards’ emergency-messaging applications, though Rees contends these are redundant: “We can get free smartphone apps for amber alerts and the Most Wanted. We already have yellow boxes everywhere on highways for emergency messaging. So why would we want to depend on a billboard? I just know if there’s a tsunami warning I’m not going out looking for one of these billboards.” And, like TV’s endless parade of crime news, it may convey a distorted and damaging view of the world: “There’s a huge board in Fife, across from the Tacoma Dome, playing FBI’s 10 Most Wanted. It’s the portal to Tacoma — it makes it seem like those people are all there. Do we really want our physical environment to be constantly flashing fear messages?”

The council members did amend their ordinance to make Clear Channel commit in writing to providing the emergency services it promised. And they refined it in other ways: It will allow digital boards only in urban, not rural areas, and require shorter pauses between their shuffling images, ostensibly to reduce distraction (though it’s hard to see how that will help).

The new version satisfies three of four suburban cities that objected to the old ones. Renton, Burien, Tukwila, and Federal Way ban or restrict digital billboards but fear getting stuck with them when they annex county territory where Clear Channel would likely install. The ordinance now gives them veto power in prospective annexation areas until 2015. Renton, Burien, and Tukwila withdrew their opposition. Federal Way’s stuck — it doesn’t expect to complete its annexation by that deadline — but it’s not going to fight over it.

But before suburban planners get smug about having held off digital blight, they might want to check out the woeful tale of a woman in South St. Paul, Minnesota. She woke to find an 80-foot-high Clear Channel board blazing in her den and bathroom windows, with no official notice or political recourse: The sign is 350 feet away in the separate municipality of West St. Paul. With high-powered LEDs, distance is no object.

Would-be billboard buster Rees draws further dismay from the fact that King County plans to settle for some emergency messaging, rather than extracting steep payments from digi-board operators, as municipalities in Arizona and California have done. If we’re going to sell out, she suggests, we could at least “figure out how to be expensive whores.” How expensive? Clear Channel Northwest president Olivia Lippens declared in a court filing last week that the 50 or so old-style signs in Tacoma that it wants to swap for 10 digital billboards are worth “in excess of $75 million.”

By agreeing to go digital, King County is proving more compliant than the leading cities in Clear Channel’s own famously regulation-averse home state, Texas. According to a study of the energy impacts of digital billboards sponsored by an anti-blight group, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Galveston, and Amarillo all ban digital billboards; El Paso and San Antonio have put a moratorium on them.

But Scenic America’s Tracy isn’t entirely discouraged. She predicts this region will still offer a shining example of resistance to visual pollution: “We can all go visit the city of Tacoma, where they’re protecting their civic heritage.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.