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Repair or Replacement?

A fallen billboard may be a bellwether for Tucson's future enforcement policies

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A monsoon storm that blew through town in early July might have done more than knock over a billboard along the east side of the 2300 block of South Craycroft Road: It may have also blown a huge hole in the decades-old city procedures for enforcing local laws concerning the enormous signs.

When the storm toppled the 14-by-48-foot billboard, the eight wooden poles holding it up also came tumbling over. The falling sign crashed down onto an adjoining used-car lot, totaling three vehicles and causing more than $15,000 in damage. The top of the billboard was also slightly wrecked.

The billboard, now owned by Clear Channel Outdoor, was originally installed in 1974 as a single-faced sign. Over time, a second side was added, and because of changes in local zoning, the billboard became "legally nonconforming."

According to Principles and Practice of Urban Planning, the bible of 1960s American city planning, rebuilding nonconforming uses was to be restricted "after damage ... by fire, weather or natural calamity." The goal of these limitations was the eventual removal of the nonconforming object because of deterioration.

Despite that, Arizona law allows "reasonable repairs and alterations" to be made to nonconforming billboards. For its part, the city of Tucson sign code states: "No nonconforming sign shall be moved, altered, removed and reinstalled, or replaced ... ."

After the Craycroft billboard came crashing down, Clear Channel Outdoor in August applied for and was issued a city permit to "repair storm damage with like materials." While the sign has yet to be re-erected, indications are that it will soon be going back up.

According to the sign application, the wooden poles are to be replaced when the billboard is put back up. "The billboard faces and metal catwalks," the permit states, on the other hand, "would be reused and remain the same."

"The city is going against the law," comments local billboard activist and legal adviser Mark Mayer. "The sign code says you can't replace nonconforming signs."

Mayer also believes the top of the billboard was changed, without permits, from wood to metal about five years ago. "Clean Channel is claiming they'll reuse the top," Mayer says, "but that's all illegal. So they're benefiting from their own violation."

Residential and commercial neighbors of the sign also aren't happy about the billboard going back up. "Replacing the poles is not a repair," suggests Mary Dailey, president of the adjacent Corbett Neighborhood Association.

Pat Martin, from the Myers neighborhood on the west side of Craycroft, echoes Dailey: "If it goes down, I want it to stay down."

In addition to these individual complaints, two neighborhood groups in the area have reportedly petitioned the city to revoke the approved permit.

Why permission was even given to put the sign back up in the first place, and where the city of Tucson draws the line between billboard repair and replacement, were two questions for Ernie Duarte, director of Tucson's Development Services Department. Another question: Since the sign has been removed from the site, how will the city ensure the same billboard is erected?

While city officials usually quickly respond to inquiries, Duarte didn't return several phone calls from the Weekly. His assistant who took the questions remarked, however, that Duarte was consulting with the city attorney's office about answering them.

Mayer believes the handling of this case might have something to do with secret negotiations now going on between City Hall and Clear Channel Outdoor. Seeking to replicate the agreement Pima County reached with the company earlier this year, city officials are apparently discussing with the billboard company an end to their extensive history of legal disputes.

While the controversy surrounding the Craycroft Road billboard has yet to be resolved, a 2004 storm-damaged sign near Interstate 10 and Wilmot Road has been fixed. In that case, the top of the 400-square-foot billboard installed in 1971 was torn apart, and Clear Channel applied to the city to "make repairs to existing sign with like materials."

Because it was also a nonconforming billboard, an official from the city attorney's office reviewed this permit application before it was issued. After being told that "all six (wooden) poles appear to be structurally OK" in an e-mail message, he determined: "It appears that none of the repairs is structural in nature ... and therefore these fall into the category of 'reasonable repairs and alterations.'" Based on that, he approved the permit.

The damaged sign was finally improved last year, but photographic evidence shows that not only was the sign repaired, but the poles were also replaced. Despite that, the city of Tucson took no action against Clear Channel.

In an 1911 editorial, the Tucson Citizen argued Tucson needed to regulate billboards. "A billboard is not necessarily a nuisance," the newspaper stated, "but it may become so by an abuse of privilege."

Almost 100 years later, the city continues to wrestle with this issue. What happens on south Craycroft Road potentially may signal a significant change in the direction the billboard enforcement winds are blowing in Tucson.

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