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City planning to address billboard 'problem'

Billboard Tax

   News Editor
   The growing interest by non-local companies to add their aesthetics to the community has some residents and city officials alarmed.
   Therefore, the Madras City Council has indicated it will soon be entertaining changes to the city's sign ordinance to limit the number of new billboards in town and another ordinance to tax the owners of those that choose to remain.
   "The just of it is we have a billboard problem," said Madras Mayor Rick Allen. "We are going to solve it."
   There are 17 billboards within the Madras urban growth boundary. Eight lie south of J Street, seven are located on the northern end of town while two more are located within the downtown corridor.
   A working draft of the proposed billboard ordinance calls for a $4 tax per square foot of a sign's surface area. Only billboards defined as "Off-Premises Signs," or billboards advertising products or services "existing elsewhere than upon the same lot where such sign is displayed" are eligible to be taxed. Businesses with billboard-style signs on their own premises would not be taxed.
   "I don't believe this tax would stop sign companies from putting up billboards in Madras," City Administrator Steve Bogart said. "It would be another tool to manage the number, size and characteristics of billboards while giving us some tax dollars to improve the community."
   But the second part of the city's "two-pronged approach," as Mayor Allen called it, would prohibit where new billboards could be located through revisions to the city's sign ordinance.
   Along with the billboard tax ordinance, those revisions could prohibit billboards from being constructed along 4th and 5th streets between J and Cedar -- or anywhere, for that matter.
   Chris Bedsaul, interim planning director for the city of Madras, is working on the language of the revised sign ordinance but said it won't be submitted to the Planning Commission until December or January to begin the public hearing process.
   "We're exploring a lot of options here, but the most powerful lobbies in the country are billboard companies," Allen said. "We have a very powerful group in the business and they will not just sit by.
   "They will challenge it and challenge it and we've got to do something for this town to stop them from cluttering our town so much."
   In April, following the construction of the city's 17th billboard on Highway 97 across the street from Community First Bank, an aggressive billboard company based in The Dalles provided the catalyst that put city officials on alert when it applied to build five more between Bard Lane and the Prineville junction.
   In response, the City Council passed an emergency ordinance prohibiting the construction of billboards for six months, rejecting Meadow Outdoor Advertising's five applications and buying the city time to update its sign ordinance.
   Meadow Outdoor Advertising appealed its five rejected applications to the Land Use Board of Appeals. However, the emergency ordinance prohibiting new billboards expired on Oct. 10, so Meadow Outdoor Advertising has reapplied through conventional channels to construct its proposed five. That raises procedural questions in and of itself, city official said.
   Attorney Bill Buchanan of Bend, who represented the city in its Land Use Board of Appeals dispute, wrote the draft of the proposed billboard tax ordinance that the city could hear as early as Nov. 13.
   Bogart noted that most billboard companies don't own the land they are constructed upon. More often, they lease a small patch of property or pay the owner rent, and have been known to recoup their capital expenditure within six months, he said.
   "It's going to up the ante for billboard companies," Bogart said. "They'll need to determine whether it's still in their economic interest."
   The proposed tax ordinance doesn't specify whether the expense should be passed on to the advertiser or absorbed by the owner, Bogart noted.
   Allen said most advertisements located on the city's 17 billboards are not for local businesses and should be another cause for supporting the proposed tax.
   "They're basically taking people away from your community," he said. "They pay no property taxes and basically take the money and run."