July 6, 1997 in Nation/World

Road Leading To Billboards Was Paved With Fine Print

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Two years have passed. Clay Larkin’s anger has not.

The Post Falls City Council member is still upset about a gauntlet of billboards erected in 1995 near the Idaho-Washington state line.

Those billboards grab the eyes of Interstate 90 motorists, luring some of them into the Factory Outlet Mall but also obscuring their first view of pine-covered Idaho mountains.

“That’s not a real good welcome to the state,” said Larkin, who may have a strategy for getting rid of the billboards.

Kootenai County planners still get calls objecting to the decision that allowed the signs to go up.

It was a chain of decisions, actually.

Four of the six billboards were installed on a 15-acre strip owned by D.A. Degerstrom Inc., a Spokane mining company. The field is a former gravel pit.

Obie Media Corp. wanted to put signs there. According to county documents, Degerstrom expected to make $30,000 annually in lease fees.

The plan required a zone change to light industrial, plus a permit from the state Department of Transportation.

Four members of the Kootenai County planning commission were present for the zoning discussion in 1994. Jon Mueller, a landscape architect, objected. He felt there were plenty of billboards already, and he didn’t want the signs looming over hikers and bikers on the Centennial Trail.

Jan Scharnweber agreed.

But George LaValley and Mike Rasor voted for the signs. The zoning vote stalemated 2-2.

The commissioners then voted whether to approve a development agreement. That would allow a rezone, but with restrictions.

In this case, the number and placement of signs would be limited. With only Mueller holding out, the agreement was approved 3-1.

Rasor, who has since died, was known for his bulldog opposition to government regulations. He wrote in the decision document: “The location of the site is an area that currently offers a recreational opportunity near the Spokane River and has a special scenic quality that will be preserved by the Development Agreement.”

County commissioners rubber-stamped the decision.

No one from the public appeared at county hearings to testify against the rezone. Only the Kootenai Environmental Alliance sent a letter objecting. Its president noted what “a real eyesore” the billboards would be.

The Department of Transportation posed a bigger hurdle for Obie Media.

Idaho law requires that, before a billboard can be erected within sight of a highway, there must be a commercial operation there.

There was no business on Degerstrom’s strip of land, so a transportation employee denied the permit. So did the district engineer. So did a deputy Idaho attorney general.

Obie appealed each decision. Finally, the state hired an independent person to hear the case. That hearings officer granted the permit, on the grounds that Jacklin Seed Co. parked semi-trailers on the land and that constituted a commercial use.

The signs went up.

The Jacklin trailers are no longer parked on the property. That means the billboards don’t conform with state law.

But in order to have them removed, the state - under a law passed this year - would have to pay Obie not only for the signs, but for the loss of income they generate.

Based on national figures, that could be $3,000 to $4,000 per double-sided billboard per month.

Ironically, the city of Post Falls has plenty of billboards on its own stretch of I-90. But if the council really wants to get rid of the state line signs, it may hold a trump card.

The Degerstrom land is for sale, along with a large piece of property on the Spokane River. If a new owner wants to develop the riverfront land - a move that would require city sewer lines - Larkin thinks Post Falls should make sign removal a condition of annexation.

Says the councilman: “I’d like to see it on the table.”

, DataTimes

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