A deal to kill a loathed billboard near City Springs in exchange for allowing self-lit LED versions elsewhere is a bad sign, according to residents and officials who voiced opposition at an Oct. 3 City Council meeting.
“I’m uncomfortable with the Pandora’s box it opens,” said City Councilmember Andy Bauman, who sought to kill the proposal outright, while the council tabled it for later action.
At issue is a two-sided billboard on the triangle of land at the intersection of Mount Vernon Highway and Johnson Ferry and Roswell roads. The city recently purchased the land, partly for a park to serve the new City Springs civic center across Roswell, and partly for a redesigned intersection. In August, the city demolished commercial buildings on the site.
Now, the billboard is the only structure still standing. That’s because an attempt to take it by eminent domain is foundering on disputes about the sign’s value, according to City Attorney Dan Lee. He gave the council some examples that implied the range of values, saying the city could offer to pay for a sign’s physical value at around $25,000, while a billboard company might argue its advertising revenue is worth $800,000. The city already paid about $4.8 million and used eminent domain threats to buy the triangle land.
Lee said that he and Mayor Rusty Paul, when they served years ago as state senators, unsuccessfully proposed a law that would make the physical value the rule in such cases. He said that “the chances of us reaching agreement [on the billboard’s value] are pretty small.” And the alternative — letting a court decide — is an “age-old battle that I’ve fought … you pay to fight it and it’s hard,” he said.
A state law allows a deal where a billboard can be relocated somewhere within 250 feet in lieu of an eminent domain reimbursement, Lee and staff attorney Joe Leonard said, but that does not apply in a city without an existing billboard relocation ordinance. Sandy Springs is one of those cities, partly because it doesn’t want the giant signs anywhere, officials said.
To resolve the triangle situation, the city attorneys are proposing a new ordinance that offers two options when a billboard is targeted by eminent domain or the “threat thereof.” Like state law, it would allow for relocation within 250 feet, or elsewhere in the city at up to three alternative sites reviewed by the city’s Community Development director. It also proposes a trade-off scheme to allow the targeted billboard to be “upgraded” into an LED version in exchange for the owner removing three of its other, existing billboards anywhere in the city. (The ordinance refers to “sign faces,” so a double-sided billboard would count as two.) All such moves are optional and would require the city’s approval.
LED billboards are widely disliked in the city. Many residents complained last year when an LED billboard went up at Abernathy Road and Mount Vernon Highway as one of the last results of an old Fulton County zoning lawsuit that predated the incorporation of Sandy Springs. The proposed ordinance’s LED trade-off plan would be the first time the city allowed such signs.
The only person to speak in favor of the plan was Scott Peters, an attorney for billboard owner Outfront Media and the Outdoor Advertising Association of Georgia. He called it a “win-win for both the community and the industry.”
Karen Meinzen McEnery, a former city councilmember, disagreed. “LEDs are what that is really about,” she said. “Let them die their own death … It’s the nose of the camel under the tent.”
She said Sandy Springs citizens would sign off on a big check to kill such signs, so “don’t worry about paying for a condemned billboard.”
When Paul asked whether any councilmember would make a motion on the proposal, there was an unusually long, silent pause before John Paulson finally moved for approval. Then there was another notable pause, giving opponents brief hope the idea would die for lack of a second, before Gabriel Sterling gave it the nod.
Councilmembers voiced concerns that the proposed ordinance was too hastily arranged, lacked transparency and could have unintended consequences. Lee said the Planning Commission, which earlier approved the ordinance, expressed valid concerns that a City Council vote on eminent domain would be the only public review of any such billboard relocation.
“This is kind of a weird way to put LEDs into our code … and that’s a little troubling to me,” said Paulson.
Bauman said he was concerned with city officials “horse-trading locations” and, while calling for more community discussion of the plan, also was prepared to vote it down.
The council voted 4-1, with Bauman in opposition, to table the idea for now.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described the billboard relocation option and the formula for allowing a new LED billboard.