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Sandy readies for possible billboard showdown

As final pieces go up at Haley Road, councilors rethink strategy

The first advertisement appeared on one of the two, 76-foot, double-sided billboards at the intersection of Highway 26 and Haley Road in Boring.

On Tuesday, April 24 - just days after V-shaped sign-holders with high-powered lights appeared atop the existing two steel poles - drivers headed towards Sandy were greeted with a sign advertising the sale of the land on which the billboards sit. The other billboard doesn't yet have a sign.

The most recent developments have brought a heightened sense of urgency to the Sandy City Council, which once again is considering a lawsuit against Clackamas County to have the signs removed.

'At this stage, our policy is clear - the city is opposed to the billboards,' City Manager Scott Lazenby said. 'Now it's a matter of legal strategy.'

Florence Erickson - who has owned her Haley Road land since 1943 - became eligible to place the $50,000 billboards on her berry farm property after filing a Measure 37 claim, which gives her full, unrestricted use of her property across from Good Shepherd Community Church.

Measure 37, an initiative passed by voters in 2004, requires governments either to waive land-use requirements that reduce a property's value or compensate landowners for the reduction in value. Instead of paying Erickson $6 million (her claim), the county opted to waive all applicable land rules, giving her unrestricted use of the property.

Bob Erickson told The Post that the billboards were constructed out of economic necessity.

'Anyone who disagrees with what we're doing are fully within their rights to question us about it,' Erickson said. 'We're comfortable in our position. We're not seeking to fight with any of our neighbors, but when (my family) bought the property, there were certain rights that came with it. Since then, the state of Oregon has done things to diminish those rights. We're attempting to regain some of those rights.'

The Boring billboards break Oregon's 35-year limit on such signs. The Ericksons have owned the Haley Road property since 1943.

The city of Sandy originally threatened a lawsuit against Clackamas County for allowing the billboards and for not notifying the city under its intergovernmental "Green Corridor Agreement," which aims to preserve the rural buffer between Gresham and Sandy.

When the Sandy City Council took a straw poll of how it felt about legal action to stop the billboards earlier this month, it came out 4-3, with a majority not wanting to go to court due to the cost of litigation and other pressing legal matters.

The council's two main apprehensions about going forward with a lawsuit, Lazenby said, are, 'First, that we'd be all alone, carrying the water for funding legal action (for an area outside the city limits), and second, the possibility that we go through the whole process and then they figure out some loophole.'

Mayor Linda Malone says she believes she has a majority of councilors in favor of legal action, especially now that the first signs are up. The council will discuss the matter in an executive session scheduled Wednesday, April 25, before a city Budget Committee meeting. Of the seven-member council, Malone expects Councilors Don Allen and Bill Leslie to dissent.

'If I thought we could win, I'd be for a fight,' Leslie wrote in a letter to his fellow councilors. But I don't think we can win.'

He said that the billboard company has deep pockets, huge financial incentives if they win, 'and they have indicated that they will use their deep pockets to wage this battle. We can't bring that much money to bear.'

And without help from entities such as the 1000 Friends of Oregon or other cities, Sandy would be on its own, spending many thousands of dollars of tax money

'I am not surprised that we are hearing that our citizens want to fight it,' Leslie continued. 'I don't want the billboards any more than anyone else does. But I don't think that we will hear from the citizens who would see this as a misuse of funds until the money is spent. Unfortunately, that will be too late.'

Leslie says he would rather use the $50,000 that would be earmarked for the legal battle to research and implement 'a more comprehensive fix for the problems created by Measure 37.' He said that the measure made the billboards possible, and only another referendum or action by the legislature could prevent such projects from happening.

'I continue to have strong objections to this battle, not the least of which is because we will, I strongly believe, lose,' he concluded.

Lazenby says City Attorney Paul Elsner is confident that Sandy has a good case against the county and the lawsuits.

'Obviously our city attorney isn't going to guarantee success,' Lazenby said, 'but he's shared that he's pretty confident that Measure 37 doesn't provide as much of a loophole as the sign company thinks it does.'

Elsner is ready when his clients are.

'The complaint is basically drafted,' he said. But the city has to decide, he said, if the fight is worth it.

'You're going out basically picking a fight with someone who has money. It's not going to be an inexpensive undertaking, right or wrong.'

Malone, the most vocal critic of the billboards, has her doubts.

Although still very much opposed to the billboards, Malone wonders whether any lawsuit would be too little too late. Had the county notified the city of the proposed billboards in a timely matter, she said, the city would have had enough time to 'jump on it right away and seek and injunction.' The poles might not have even been installed, much less the tops.

'Now that the tops are on them, the case becomes tougher for the courts to decide since they're already built,' she said.

But Lazenby and Elsner say the city is not deterred by the fact that the billboards are nearing completion.

'For the sign company, it's not so much about the current investment (the existing signs at the site) but protecting millions of dollars of future revenue on these things,' Lazenby said.

Some Boring residents, such as Gary Jensen (who addressed the council Monday, April 16), believe Sandy should mind its own business and stay out of the so-called corridor.

To city officials, Malone said, 'Obviously this is our business. Otherwise we wouldn't have the intergovernmental agreement. We felt it was enough of our business to enter an agreement with Metro and Clackamas County.'

She said Sandy's separation from the developed Metro bloc - a key priority for Sandy residents, according to a city survey - would be reduced from 7.5 miles (between Stone Road and Kelso Road) to 4 miles.

'Anything from those billboards back to Gresham (would be) fair game for urban growth expansion,' she said. After the recently approved Ashley's Village redevelopment reaches its eventual completion, 'The corridor we'd protect would be down to 2.5 miles.

'At that point, what's the difference?'

Billboards are beginning to affect other communities, too, Elsner said. A state that once had a moratorium on billboards is now seeing six new signs in Hillsboro and several others in the Gladstone area, he said. That's just for starters.

Malone said the solution to any future threats to the corridor may be purchasing the land surrounding the Highway.

'We may need to look at a way we can buy land,' she said, '150 feet on each side of the highway.'

The mayor apparently has lobbied for the cause among some citizens, raising a 'substantial commitment' of private funds to help the pending legal battle.

She said she's secured $17,000 - 'about a third' of the estimated legal costs - from one local citizen who the mayor said wants to remain anonymous.

'I'd feel bad if I didn't do anything, if I just let it happen,' Malone said. 'Even if, in the end, we lose, I can at least look at myself in the mirror and say I tried to stop it. If we don't fight this now, we won't have standing to fight anything bigger that may come along.'

Lazenby said Elsner had asked Icon Groupe's attorney, Dan Chandler, to delay construction of the billboards until the legal issues are sorted out, 'as a courtesy, but they obviously weighed the risk and decided to continue with it.'

Chandler could not be reached for comment.

'I imagine the parts are pretty interchangeable,' Lazenby said. 'If they have to take it down, they'll be able to use them somewhere else.'

Bob Erickson said he's never been contacted by representatives from the city of Sandy, but wishes he had.

'They never picked up a telephone to find out what our position is, to see if we could negotiate something,' Erickson said. 'Instead of having a conversation with us, they've decided to be dictatorial - to put forward their position this way.

'Before you hit someone, you should at least have a talk with them,' he added.