In weight-loss commercials, before-and-after portraits show people downsizing. But for the billboard industry in Tucson, supersized appears to be the order of the day.
That's what critics of Eller Media Company charge has happened recently along the east side of Interstate 10 between Ruthrauff Road and the Rillito River. They contend the State of Arizona has allowed the firm, owned by political heavyweight and multimillionaire Karl Eller, to erect five monstrous signs in exchange for removing six old and much smaller ones. They claim this enrichment of the billboard company was done in violation of Pima County's zoning code.
In September, Dave Sitton of Eller Media wrote Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall a chummy letter, informing her of the company's plans to install three billboards in the area. Sitton wrote that Eller had worked with the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) on relocation of billboards caused by widening of I-10. Sitton said that federal law "allows the state to preempt any local jurisdictions in the matters of zoning for highway projects," and said a recent Court of Appeals ruling confirmed it.
Mark Mayer, a longtime advocate of making the billboard industry conform to applicable laws, questions that opinion. He also argues that Eller got much more than a fair exchange in the deal.
The highway widening, Mayer said, required six billboards to be removed, some of which were in poor condition. Two of those boards had double-sided signs, while the others were single-sided, and together all six had a total of 4,560 square feet of advertising space.
The five new billboards all are two-sided and comprise 6,720 square feet of space, a 47 percent enlargement in area. Mayer estimates the increased value of the signs to be at least $1 million.
"Eller is morphing low-value boards into ones with greater area and value," Mayer says. "They're taking rickety boards and turning them into signs which will last in perpetuity."
Mayer claims the new billboards violate the Pima County zoning ordinance. In the applicable zone, among other regulations, that code limits the size of billboards to 75 square feet, a height of 16 feet, and requires a permit to be issued by the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Mayer says none of those regulations was met by the new signs.
But, Sitton said, "The boards were relocated in conjunction with ADOT, under the law, and all of them are on state land. More came down than went up. There was comparable square footage of signs involved."
Sitton also said that appraisal of the value of the old billboards was not done by the state. Rather, the negotiated settlement was based simply on the number of structures involved.
Walt Gray, a community relations officer with ADOT, says it is his agency's policy not to allow new signs to be larger than those replaced. When asked about the apparent discrepancy with that policy in this case, he couldn't offer an explanation.
Gray also said that two of the billboards were relocated after negotiations between Eller Media and Pima County, not ADOT. Carmine DeBonis, Jr., director of the county's development services department, disputes that. He said that to his knowledge, Eller Media did not contact his agency about the billboards.
Gray indicated that a decision on two of the other five billboards was still pending by the state. When informed the signs had already been erected, he expressed surprise.
Saving money, Gray says, is the reason ADOT prefers to relocate billboards instead of buying them. "They would cost between $300,000 and $400,000 apiece," he says, "and that money can be put into more highway work instead."
Mayer called that a false analysis, saying that in many cases billboards are old, built on leased land, and are often non-conforming uses under the zoning code. Based on these common occurrences, existing billboards may have heavily discounted values in his view.
Patty Urias, public information officer for Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano's office, the agency that supplied legal advice to ADOT in this case, believes Sitton's interpretation of the law is correct. If they are on state property, she said, it is her understanding that state, and not local, laws apply.
Pima County officials aren't so sure about that. They are also uncertain about the exact location of the billboards. Last October, DeBonis wrote Sitton a letter requesting information about both the old and new signs. He said the request was not a challenge to Eller Media's position on the billboards, just an attempt to gather information. But he concluded by writing, "I do recommend that the structures not be relocated until the requested information is provided and reviewed." Since Sitton did not respond, DeBonis wrote him again in December. But again no reply was received.
Since the billboards were put up anyway, Pima County has received two complaints about the structures. Leigh Robinson filed one of those and said, "I certainly think the State of Arizona should comply with local codes. The billboards are newer and much bigger than the old ones and they will likely last 1,000 years."
Don Arkin, who submitted the other complaint, said, "I find it ridiculous that the Republicans who run this state make a big deal out of local control and constantly complain about interference from Washington, D.C. But at the same time, they are so outrageous about interfering in matters like this."
Early last month, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry notified the Board of Supervisors of the issue. He included a memo from DeBonis which indicated that the county would need to define the exact location of the new signs before it could proceed.
Almost two months later, county officials are still talking about doing that survey project, and Debonis isn't sure when it will be done. "There is no timetable to complete the work," he says. "But clearly the next step is to identify which parcels the billboards are physically located on."
Mark Mayer believes he sees a pattern developing as ADOT continues to widen I-10. "We also saw this happen in Marana, where six ancient and low-lying 10-by-40-foot billboards, five of which were single-sided, were replaced by six new 672-square-foot, double-sided boards that are 60 feet high," he said. Mayer estimates this tripling in advertising space increased the value of the Marana signs by $1.5 million.
Mayer thinks the same scenario will result when ADOT begins work on constructing a new interchange at I-10 and I-19. His suspicion is that the state will allow the area to be lined with new billboards and wondered, "Why is the state enriching Eller Media through its actions?"