Clear Channel Sues Property Owner to Keep Billboard

By Andy Meek

TOP OF THE HEAP: Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. is suing a South Memphis property owner over the proposed demolition of a building that would affect a Clear Channel billboard on the property. -- Photo By Andy Meek

Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. has filed suit in Shelby County Chancery Court against a property owner stuck with a dilapidated brick industrial building near Downtown Memphis that dates back to 1901.

Much of the value of the property - and the reason for the lawsuit - can be found on the building's roof. That's where a billboard towers high above the landscape and greets drivers on nearby Interstate 240.

Beverly Davis-Hamilton, the registered agent of the nonprofit group that owns the property at 752 S. Somerville St., was notified several years ago by the Memphis Fire Department that the building needs major renovations. The building's facade appears worn and is scarred with graffiti.

In late August, Davis-Hamilton decided to tear the whole thing down instead of making costly repairs. Therein lies the reason for the suit, which was filed Oct. 31, according to The Daily News Online,

Who has the right of way?

Though Davis-Hamilton owns the property, Clear Channel owns the billboard attached to the building. And it's not just any billboard; that sign appears to be one of the most well-positioned in the city, presenting the billboard's advertisers with the kind of visibility available at few other locations around town.

"Of all the signs in Memphis, I'd say that's one of the top three in the city in terms of visibility," said Randall Swaney, a local billboard businessman who operates independently. "I should have bought that one myself."

But that's only one reason Clear Channel is itching for a courtroom fight to keep its sign up. Another is that if the building gets torn down, sign and all, the company's billboard cannot be rebuilt.

A Memphis City Council-sponsored moratorium on new billboard construction remains in force, meaning Clear Channel wouldn't be able to apply to move the sign somewhere else in the city if the building on Somerville is demolished.

The company's ownership stake in the sign can be traced back to 1991. That's when the late William B. Tanner bought the property, Swaney said, for about $90,000.

Tanner, who died in December 2005, was a Memphis businessman whose business interests through the years included everything from Kia car dealerships to billboards. For many years, he was the king of the hill in the city's billboard industry.

Tanner sold the sign on Somerville in 1997 to Eller Media Co., an outdoor ad firm later swallowed up by Clear Channel. In 2004, Tanner quitclaimed the property - everything but the sign - to its current owner, Surviving Artists Inc., the nonprofit organization whose registered agent is Davis-Hamilton.

Tug-of-war continues

After a hearing in Shelby County Environmental Court earlier this year, the property owner was ordered to submit a plan to rehabilitate the building.

Davis-Hamilton wrote a letter to Larry Quas, vice president of Clear Channel Outdoor's Memphis division, in August explaining that demolition of the building would begin on or about Oct. 31.

The billboard company then swung into action.

"We have a perpetual easement and a right to be there," said Robert Spence, Clear Channel's Memphis attorney. "She's indicated she wants to demolish (the building), so that conflicts with our perpetual easement and right to be there."

Among other things in the suit, Clear Channel claims that demolition of the building and the resulting destruction of the billboard would cause the company to violate contracts with existing advertisers for the sign and leave Clear Channel open to breach of contract claims.

A hearing on Clear Channel's request for a temporary injunction has been scheduled for Nov. 13.

"That situation with Clear Channel, all of that is in the courts, so I'm not in a position to discuss it at this time," Davis-Hamilton said.