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Bending to pressure

The county gives up on fighting billboard rebuilding

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San Luis Obispo County staff have abandoned efforts to challenge the rebuilding of billboards destroyed or damaged in recent storms.

THEY CAN REBILL(BOARD) IT :  This billboard was completely destroyed in recent storms, but, despite some initial hopes, that's not stopping the county from allowing it to be rebuilt. - PHOTO BY PATRICK HOWE
  • PHOTO BY PATRICK HOWE
  • THEY CAN REBILL(BOARD) IT : This billboard was completely destroyed in recent storms, but, despite some initial hopes, that's not stopping the county from allowing it to be rebuilt.

# One code official cited strong lobbying by outdoor advertising companies, unclear language in a county ordinance, and fears of a potential lawsuit as reasons.

After eight or so billboards along the county's scenic routes were damaged in January storms, the county called for a meeting with the corporate owners of the billboards to discuss which ones would be allowed to be rebuilt and which were too far damaged to be legally repaired.

Now the county has reversed course, telling the companies to go ahead and rebuild them all. Work has already begun.

Supervising Code Investigator Harley Voss said that after proposing the meeting, the planning department was besieged with calls opposing any action against the companies.

"There's a huge lobby for billboards," he said. "When those things started coming down, we had letters from local chambers and businessmen, and Abel Maldonado's office started calling."

CBS Outdoor, the owner of several of the billboards, sent out letters to local advertisers, urging them to contact Maldonado's office to complain about any potential action.

Maldonado's spokeswoman said her office called merely for information.

In a letter to Megan Maloney, director of communications for French Hospital, a CBS Outdoor account executive pleaded for her help in making the case about the "benefits" of billboards to the county and the "ramifications" if they were prevented: "... we are not asking to build more, only to re-build the ones that have been grandfathered in since 1965."

Company officials did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

In Voss' telling, it wasn't so much the calls locally that turned planners' minds against a battle, as it was the companies' influence at the state level.

He said that the county sought help from the state Office of Outdoor Advertising, and while there were some early indications that the state planned to back the county in a fight against the companies, the state ultimately backed off. New Times' calls to the state office were not returned.

Technically, under both the county's ordinances and the state's decades-old Outdoor Advertising Act, with some exceptions billboards are banned along rural or scenic routes, but those that existed at the time the law was passed have been grandfathered in.

Similarly, federal law has long banned new billboards along highways, but plans to phase out existing billboards have stalled.

The mix of state, federal, and local jurisdictions makes enforcement tricky, Voss said.

Locally, Voss said, the companies argued that the county's own ordinances didn't support the planners' case.

Essentially it came down to an argument about the word "value."

The county's ordinance says that a sign can't be rebuilt if more than 75 percent of the value of the sign is gone. Planners had long taken that to mean the value of the sign itself.

The company argued that it meant the marketing value of the sign to the owners. And since those were far in excess of the construction costs and value of the signs, essentially there would be no circumstances under which they couldn't be rebuilt.

Though that point was arguable, once the state opted not to back the county, Voss said the threat of a possible lawsuit by the companies--considering the county's budget problems--convinced planners to cancel the meetings altogether and allow the companies to rebuild.

Voss, however, said that planners are considering taking the matter to county supervisors to revisit the county's wording to better arm them for future battles with the companies.

Andrew Christie, director of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club, said that a public process is needed.

"There should be a public hearing on this," he said, if only at the planning commission level.

"The public should be able to hear if our elected officials are choosing to determine the meaning of the word 'value' according to the clear and obvious definition, referring to the value of the physical structure, rather than to some nebulous indeterminate meaning referring to the marketing value of the message," Christie said.

Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie, Andrew's sister, called for the matter to be taken up at a commission meeting.

"Billboards are a blight on the landscape," she said. "I'm not pleased to see the county reach behind its back and remove its spine to avoid litigation."


Managing Editor Patrick Howe has 'value.' He can be reached at phowe@newtimesslo.com.

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