VOL. 130 | NO. 49 | Thursday, March 12, 2015
Billboard Challenge Reaches Critical Juncture
By Bill Dries
The latest legal dispute over billboards is in General Sessions Environmental Court Thursday, March 12.
But the hearing before Judge Larry Potter won’t decide the dispute over three billboards in residential areas. It is a hearing on a move to dismiss the case by Robert Spence, the attorney for Clear Channel Outdoors, which owns two of the three contested billboards.
Beyond that issue and Potter’s decision Thursday is a case that hinges on how well code enforcement officials keep records that indicate when the billboards went up.
“The real issue is under the UDC (Unified Development Code), you can’t have billboard signs that are within 100 feet of property that is zoned residential,” said Webb Brewer, lead counsel for the residents who filed the suit. “But it grandfathers in signs that were legal under the zoning regulations that existed at the time they were constructed. … We allege that these three signs that we’re challenging were not legal when they were built.”
His case relies on photographs of the sites; the billboards are on Ayers Street, Lane Avenue and Waldran Boulevard, all inner-city Memphis areas. Spence has argued that code enforcement records show the billboards were up before the Unified Development Code restrictions.
Brewer concedes it is a complex determination on which rests the larger issue.
“The construction code office’s records as to when they were constructed differ greatly from the evidence that we think we have as far as when they were constructed,” Brewer said. “In one or two there was a building on the site at the time that construction code office records show a billboard was erected. Then we can see looking at those over time when the actual billboard began to appear.”
Complicating the issue further are standards that effectively end a billboard’s life when its structure comes down. But in some cases the argument has been that an existing billboard framework, however deteriorated it might be, keeps the site alive in terms of replacing that structure with a new billboard frame.
“The UDC is pretty good on the issue of not having billboards in residential areas,” Brewer said. “However there are so many already out there that it’s kind of like closing the barn door after the horses are out. We feel like the signs are a nuisance in many instances and contribute to blighting.”