After months of haggling and negotiation with the city over its billboard registration requirements, Clear Channel Outdoor filed suit in federal court today, Thursday, to block further enforcement of the ordinance and to have it struck down.
Clear Channel contends that the city adopted a sign ordinance with the requirement that sign companies register their billboards because the city had lost its own billboard records.
But now, the suit contends, the city has expanded the purpose of that registration and wants the Clear Channel to take down nearly 150 of its 500 billboards in El Paso.
Clear Channel, one of the world’s biggest outdoor advertising companies, owns two thirds of the 750 billboards the city.
The 150 billboards the city wants removed are worth $15 million and are linked to contracted advertisements, according to the suit, but the city is offering Clear Channel no compensation to raze its signs.
That, as the suit claims, amounts to an illegal taking of private property.
“We don’t take this lightly or with any pleasure,” said VJ Smith, president of Clear Channel’s outdoor division in El Paso. “We worked very hard to resolve this issue.
“We just feel we have finally reached an impasse on resolving this registration issue. So, at this point, we feel it necessary for us to protect our legal rights. But it’s the last thing we wanted to do.”
The suit specifically names Joyce Wilson, El Paso city manager, and Mathew McElroy, the city’s deputy director of planning and economic development.
El Paso Inc. contacted Dr. Michiel Noe, District 5 city representative, on Thursday regarding the city’s on-going issues with Clear Channel, particularly the registration of billboards.
After consulting with the city attorney’s office, Noe said he couldn’t discuss Clear Channel at all because of another lawsuit the company filed against the city over its digital signs in 2009.
Smith said Clear Channel initially went along with the registration of billboards to help the city restore its lost records of the locations and descriptions of the billboards.
He said he and other sign company representatives thought they had an agreement with the city that it would not use the registration process as a way to impose new requirements and restrictions.
“We said we would gladly go along as long as they would not use the registration against us,” Smith said. “That was agreed on at a public hearing.”
But, the suit charges, the city did just that, and the registration process that the city promised would not be onerous turned out to be a red-tape nightmare.
The ordinance approved by City Council required billboard companies to provide detailed information about their signs and to accompany registration applications with affidavits that the signs were legal.
It also asks companies to come up with the very kinds of documents – permits and approvals – that the city has lost.
Clear Channel claims it complied with every city requirement and filed the documents on all of its signs in September and October 2010 at a cost of more than $80,000.
But city officials rejected the paper work on more than 200 signs, refuse to register them, and then ordered those signs demolished because they had not been registered within the required six months.
In the process, the suit states, city officials even rejected copies of sign permits and other documents that Clear Channel had found in the city’s own records.
Further, the suit states, the city applied new zoning and sign standards to the billboards that had long been “grandfathered” because they had gone up before the new standards were approved.
The city also ordered Clear Channel to demolish grandfathered signs along city streets and highways that were designated as scenic corridors years after the signs had gone up, Smith said.
“We registered the signs,” Smith said. “They are now coming up with interpretations of our registration where they are asking that the signs be removed.
“Our contention is that they are legal, nonconforming signs. Once again, the ordinance for registration was to complete the city’s records, not to say if records weren’t there, you have to take the sign down.”
This June, the suit states, Clear Channel and the city’s lawyers “reached a tentative settlement designed to resolve the dispute over (Clear Channel’s) purportedly unregistered billboards, as well as the digital billboard issues.”
But after a July 10 City Council meeting in executive session, Clear Channel learned the council had rejected the proposed settlement terms.
The city has refused to take part in further negotiations since that meeting, the suit states.
Clear Channel asks that the city be enjoined from taking any action against the company until the suit is heard by a jury that will decide if the city’s registration rules are constitutional and whether Clear Channel complied with those rules.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.