City, billboard company reach 'handshake agreement'

The city council will abandon its proposed tax ordinance while the company will withdraw five applications and its lawsuit
News Editor
   Madras Mayor Rick Allen said he has reached a “handshake agreement” with the owner of a billboard company based in The Dalles that will soon put to rest a dispute over the city’s proposed billboard tax ordinance.
   Although nothing is official, Allen indicated the city could soon scrap plans to levy a tax on the city’s 17 billboards in exchange for Meadow Outdoor Advertising withdrawing its five applications to construct new signs within the urban growth boundary. Additionally, Meadow is withdrawing a suit against Madras with the Land Use Board of Appeals and will agree to a cap on the total number of billboards in the city.
   “In the long run, we’ll have less billboards than we do today and they’ll each be 50 square feet smaller,” Allen said. “There’ll be no new ones, they’ll be smaller and there will be a reduction in the numbers.
   “It was a good compromise and it meets our objectives.”
   Chris Zukin, Meadow’s owner and general manager, said he and Allen talked about a cap of 14 billboards. Zukin’s company owns 11 of 17 billboards in the city.
   Although no billboards will be torn down, the number should eventually dwindle to 14 through natural attrition, Zukin said.
   “It was a mutual compromise,” Zukin said. “Neither one of us wanted to get into lengthy and expensive litigation. This was a good way to stop the adversarial situation that was beginning.”
   Allen announced the handshake deal at the Dec. 17 Madras City Council meeting. A month earlier, heated words were exchanged between city council members and a lawyer representing Meadow, who called the ordinance an unconstitutional violation of the corporation’s free speech rights.
   In response, Allen and other city council members said they were prepared to fight the company all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. But a number of local business owners who rent space on the signs voiced opposition to the tax.
   The proposed ordinance would tax billboard companies $4 per square foot of their sign’s surface area. Most billboards are 300 square feet, which could have generated $300 a month, or $1,200 per sign per year.
   Critics of billboards detest them for many reasons, from being eyesores on the urban landscape to drawing business away from the local community.
   In April, Meadow Outdoor Advertising applied to build five more billboards after the city drafted a revised copy of its sign ordinance that would prohibit the future construction of the signs.
   The city passed an emergency ordinance in response that placed a moratorium on new billboards for six months. Meadow appealed the temporary ordinance to the Land Use Board of Appeals and then reapplied for the five billboards after it expired in October.
   “We’re just going to let those go — tear them up,” Zukin said.
   The agreement could have its advantages for Meadow and other billboard owners. In cities that have placed limits on their billboards, the values of the signs have been known to increase considerably