Commission Recommends No New Billboard Signs Until New Rules Adopted

By Rick Smith, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - The City Planning Commission wants the City Council to impose a moratorium on permits for new billboards until the city finalizes new rules now under consideration for the large, off-premise signs, including new-era digital billboards.

Commission member Alan Thoms on Thursday came up with idea of the moratorium on new billboard requests, arguing at the commission's monthly meeting that local billboard companies will start to rush to make billboard requests knowing that the city is working on new sign rules. It would be no different, he said, than the current run of people buying up guns with the expectation of coming new federal regulations.

Vern Zakostelecky, a planner in the city's Community Development Department, said that billboard companies already are hustling to submit applications for new billboard permits with the thought that new rules are coming.

The commission on Thursday had been asked to support a new proposal from the City Council's Development Committee, which called on the city to require special conditional-use permits for every new billboard. The current city ordinance permits billboards in industrial zones and in the busiest of commercial zoning districts without a special conditional-use permit.

However, the commission thought the temporary moratorium made better sense than to turn every billboard request into a conditional use to be reviewed by the city's Board of Adjustment, which Thoms said would add more subjectivity and perhaps less fairness to the process.

"Let's look at a moratorium until we get new rules," Thoms said.

Commission member Gloria Frost said the temporary moratorium will create a "sense of urgency" for the city to establish new rules on billboards, which she noted that the city has been talking about for months.

The commission also recommended that the City Council look to the concept of overlay districts in the city that may be historic, scenic or otherwise noteworthy where special sign regulations should be put in place.

Commission member Mike Tertinger, though, expressed concern about how such special districts might be identified and what such districts said about other parts of the city.

"Does that mean every other place is ugly enough to put up a sign," Tertinger said.

Thoms, though, said it's probably clear that no one wants to see billboards in the arts, cultural and entertainment district on Third Street SE, but new signs in industrial areas might make sense.

Currently, the city's billboard ordinance allows billboards in industrial areas and in the city's busiest commercial zoning district, C-3, without a conditional-use permit and in C-2 commercial districts with a conditional-use permit.

Currently, too, the city's ordinance requires billboards to be at least 1,000 feet apart and at least 200 feet from residential areas, standards that billboard companies seek to get around by asking the Board of Adjustment for variances.

The board, though, has become reluctant to grant such variances as requests have increased for them and as the city has run out of spots to erect new billboards that meet the existing ordinance's requirements.

The city has estimated that it has about 80 "off-premise" billboards, which are different from on-premise signs that promote the business located on the site of the sign.

Seth Gunnerson, a planner in the city's Community Development Department, said his research has found that the city of Cedar Rapids has similar or larger separation requirements between billboards than other cities. At the same time, Cedar Rapids does not restrict such signs from as many districts as other cities do. In addition, Cedar Rapids generally allows larger and taller billboards than other communities that the city has looked at, Gunnerson said.

By way of comparison, the city of Iowa City limits the size of billboards to 72 square feet, while Cedar Rapids and Marion allow signs that are up to 672 square feet in size.

In late October, the Cedar Rapids City Council voiced its reservations about the Indian Creek Nature Center's plan to erect a digital billboard on land donated to the center along Highway 100 east of First Avenue East. The council debate prompted the Nature Center's own board of directors to back off its billboard plans and to forego an estimated $200,000 payment to permit the billboard on its property.

"We never anticipated the absolute hatred that some people have for billboards, particularly the electronic ones," Rich Patterson, the Nature Center's director, said then.

In the council debate, Mayor Ron Corbett said he'd like to see billboards excluded from the Highway 100 corridor between First Avenue East and Highway 13, but as it turns out, much of the land on both sides of the highway is in Marion. And the city of Marion views the corridor differently. Marion has a new, tough billboard ordinance, which restricts new billboards in the city to three busy highway corridors, Highway 100, Highway 13 and Highway 151 east of Highway 13.

Some on the Cedar Rapids council have suggested, too, that the city consider if it wants to see billboards along the coming Highway 100 extension from Edgewood Road NE west and south to Highway 30. However, most of the highway's alignment is through agricultural property in Linn County, which doesn't permit billboards in agricultural zoned areas.

Mark Wold, general manager at Lamar Advertising in Cedar Rapids, said Thursday that his firm, which owns the majority of billboards in the city, is waiting to see what changes to the city's billboard ordinance eventually emerge.

"I'm not making any judgment until we see what we're looking at," Wold said.

The city also is looking at new rules for digital billboards, which would require that digital messages on the billboards not change more often than every eight seconds. The city of Marion has a 10-second standard.

The city also is looking to make the digital signs dim at night and not face nearby residential areas, schools, churches, parks and historic buildings and districts.

Gunnerson said some cities use a cap-and-trade system, which requires that an existing billboard be removed if a new one goes up elsewhere in the city. The result likely would reduce the density of existing signs when new ones are added as the city's area grows larger. At the same time, it would make it difficult for a new sign company to enter the market because they wouldn't have existing signs to trade for new ones.
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