Billboards still causing contention at city hall

Citizens packed the city council chambers yesterday to debate a proposal to fund the removal of outdated billboards from areas along Main Street, Troost and Prospect as well as other parts of the city. The council chambers buzzed with supporters and opponents at a Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee meeting. A number of people interested in a debate over banning the production of nuclear weapons in Kansas City were also in the chamber.

After hearing an hour of heated testimony yesterday, the City Planning, Zoning and Development Committee said it will decide next week whether or not to put a new billboard proposal on the November ballot. The proposal would allow voters to decide whether they want to impose a 2% tax on outdoor advertising. The proceeds would be used to pay for removal of signs that are not maintained or have been left blank for longer than the city allows.

Billboards have been a contentious issue in Kansas City for many years. New billboard rules adopted by the city in 2007 essentially limited new signs from being erected and limited digital billboards. Those who have fought for billboard restrictions say Kansas City now has a model ordinance, but there are limited resources to actually remove blighting structures. The tax on billboards would raise about $112,000 a year for remediation.

Proponents, including Carol Winterowd of Citizens Against Billboard Blight and neighborhood advocates from across the city, argued that the tax would beautify the city. They said billboard owners could afford the modest fee. They also argued voters should have a chance to decide if they want to impose the tax.

The billboard industry objects to placing the issue on the ballot in November and threatens legal action if the proposal passes. Attorney Jim Bowers, representing Lamar Outdoor Advertising, said the tax is part of a war against billboards. “The goal is to eliminate billboards, to wipe them off the face of the earth,” he said. He argued that outdoor advertisers were being singled out, which violates their rights. Bob Fesser, Vice President and General Manager of Lamar, said of the ongoing battle over billboards, “We’re being bullied, and I’m getting to the point where I have really had it.”

David Hyatt of CBS Outdoor Advertising pointed out that the city itself frequently uses billboards, as do political candidates, because they are an effective way to get a message heard.

Another issue: how should the funds be used?

At the beginning of the session, Councilman Ed Ford said he had received a message from the city manager proposing the tax proceeds be used to fund a full-time position for administration and enforcement of the city’s billboard ordinances. However, some supporters of the tax said it would not generate enough revenue to both fund a staff position and allow for removal of blighted billboards. They favor using existing staff. But Ford countered that creating a position to administer compliance with the strict billboard code is a good use of the potential tax proceeds. “There are billboards that were not in compliance with the ordinance we passed four years ago, and they are still there,” he said.

The committee plans to continue the discussion and make a decision on placing the issue on the ballot next week.

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