Spokane Journal of Business

Billboard companies say poll gives them a defense

Most respondents would allow billboards to stay, though many support cap

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Spokanes biggest billboard company believes it has new ammunition it can use to plead its case at hearings scheduled by both the city of Spokane and Spokane County next month that could lead to the eventual elimination of most of the metro areas billboards.

Both the city and county have placed moratoriums on new applications for billboards while they consider new policies to regulate such roadway signage. Both jurisdictions are considering language that would eliminate most, if not all, billboards here over a period of time.

That prompted Lamar Outdoor Advertising, which controls the bulk of the billboards currently in place in the Spokane area, to commission two public-opinion surveysone of city residents and one of county residentson their attitudes about billboards. It hired Robinson Research Inc., of Spokane, to do the polling, which collected responses from 400 residents in each survey, although some of the county respondents lived within the city.

The surveys found that respondents hardly mentioned billboards when asked what annoys them most while driving, and that when asked how they would direct the future of billboards here, only about a third of respondents believed such signage should eventually be removed.

We had a hunch that the majority of people thought we were regulated enough and that we should be able to stay in business, says Duane R. Halliday, Lamars general manager here. The surveys made us more solid in our thinking, he says.

In the county survey, residents were asked what one thing annoys them most when taking a drive in a car, and werent given a list of possibilities to choose from. Only 2 percent of respondents mentioned billboards. The most mentioned annoyance was potholes and poor road conditions (20 percent) followed by aggressive or careless drivers (18 percent). The results were the same for billboards in the city survey, though potholes were mentioned even more in that survey, by 25 percent of respondents.

In a second set of questioning, residents were asked to rate their level of annoyance with five things they might see or experience on the road: billboards on streets, billboards on highways, litter, traffic delays, and abandoned vehicles. Again, the two items involving billboards ranked at the bottom. Litter ranked highest, followed by traffic delays and abandoned cars. The results were nearly identical in both the city and county surveys.

Residents also were asked what they would do if it were up to them to direct the future of billboards, and were given three options: completely eliminate billboards over 10 years, allow existing billboards to stay but only allow new ones if they are replacements, and allow both existing and new billboards if they comply with zoning regulations. In the city, 34 percent of respondents said they would remove all billboards, 30 percent said only existing ones should stay, and 35 percent said both new and existing billboards should be allowed. In the county, a slightly higher 37 percent said they would remove all billboards, while 26 percent believed existing billboards could stay, and 35 percent would allow both current and new billboards. In both cases, 2 percent of respondents were uncertain what they would do.

Basically, two-thirds of the people say that billboards are an acceptable part of the community, Halliday argues.

Chris Hugo, the citys program manager for growth planning, says he hasnt seen the survey results, but he would be surprised that any survey would find that two-thirds of the people are comfortable with billboards. He says that much of the public input he has heard runs to the contrary, and that a smaller, less-formal survey he conducted of city employees via an employee newsletter a decade ago found that most respondents supported greater restrictions on billboards.

Suzanne Markham, president of the Citizens for a Scenic Spokane group, which is seeking the elimination of all billboards in the Spokane area, shares Hugos skepticism. The county received over 400 letters from people saying that they wanted (billboards) stopped or, if possible, removed, she argues. What Ive seen and heard is that this is an issue that there is much more public concern about than this poll shows.

Halliday says his greatest concern about possible new regulations lies within the county, where he says discussions seem to be further along and currently lean toward the removal of most billboards over a five-year schedule.

The county Planning Commission has scheduled a public hearing on the matter for Sept. 14, and is expected later to make a final recommendation on future billboard policy to the Spokane County Commission, says Paul Jensen, a senior planner with the county. The policy ultimately would be included in the countys zoning code, he says.

Halliday estimates that if the county were to implement the proposed plan he hears most often, which would leave billboards only along some highway systems, Lamar would lose about two-thirds of its inventory of about 600 billboard faces. He estimates that Lamar controls about 85 percent of the billboard market here, and he believes that his two main competitors, Obie Media Corp. and Sunset Outdoor Inc., also would be hit hard.

The city of Spokane, meanwhile, has included language in its draft comprehensive plan that suggests removal of all billboards in the city, also over a period of time, says Hugo, though no time period and few specifics are given.

City Planning Director John Mercer says the city Plan Commission currently is collecting public input on the draft comprehensive plan, including language directed at billboards, and will hold a hearing on Sept. 6. It will begin deliberating later next month and is expected to make recommendations to the City Council on the overall plan later this fall. Mercer says it is hoped that the council will adopt a comprehensive plan by the end of the year.

Halliday contends that there currently are an adequate number of billboards both within the city and in the county, and that, if anything, both governments should simply cap that number now, allowing billboard companies to construct new billboards only when they lose one.

He warns that if either governmental body enacts policies that call for the removal of billboards, such a move would be challenged in court, both by billboard companies and the property owners who currently have signed leases with billboard companies and are receiving income from those leases.

Halliday asserts that he directed Robinson Research to ensure that Lamar was getting an accurate picture of public opinion, rather than one that could be criticized as being developed to make the billboard industry look good. Its all right there, he says. It doesnt say billboards are great, but it doesnt say that we ought to be run out of town either.

Robinson Research says the surveys, which were conducted between May 30 and June 30 and included only registered voters, have a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.

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