Last week, the 7th District Judicial Court upheld Davenport’s Zoning Board of Adjustments’ (ZBA) rulings (November/December 1999) that declared five of Revolutions’ billboard placements out of compliance with Davenport’s zoning ordinances.
Revolutions was an advertising billboard company from Florida, who (two years ago) came to town at the eleventh hour to secure as many new billboard sites as possible before the city’s self-imposed moratorium on new billboards was to begin.
With strong evidence in support of the ZBA’s ruling, which upheld the City Planning and Zoning staff’s recommendations, City Attorney Mike Meloy handily demonstrated for the District Court that Revolutions had constructed five billboards illegally. Meanwhile, in a deal last year, Lamar , a national outdoor advertising company with local offices here in the Quad Cities, purchased Revolutions. This made Lamar one of the top three largest outdoor advertising companies in the nation. Subsequently, Lamar may have to permanently remove the five boards in question.
Two years ago, Revolutions slapped twenty-three applications for billboard permits in front of the former City Council just before the deadline that invoked a moratorium on all new billboards while the city revised their billboard ordinance. Legal counsel for Revolutions argued that Revolutions properly sought permits before the moratorium and were entitled to them by law. Mayor Phil Yerington, seeking to create a more competitive arena for Lamar, voted in favor of the billboard permits, breaking the Council’s 5-5-vote tie.
To give some perspective, the various Quad Cities’ zoning departments review approximately two to three new billboard placements per year. Revolutions came in with applications for twenty-three new placements in Davenport alone, in a single year. Critics of Revolutions cried foul when the Florida-based company secured leases for boards in the inner city, in historic districts, and in close proximity to residential neighborhoods, to name a few of the more obvious objections (these sites were particularly offensive because these very types of locations were in the process of being addressed as destructive to the community by the zoning board, hence the moratorium). But the City of Davenport had not yet changed their ordinance in time to stop these billboards from being constructed. Nevertheless, the five illegal boards are not so much about neighborhoods, but about setbacks (the distance between the street and the billboard’s placement on the site).
When Revolutions’ applications were reviewed, their setback errors on five different applications were brought to their attention by the City’s zoning staff. Incorrect setbacks were identified and Revolutions was given conditional approval of the sites based upon their correcting the improper setback positions, with explanations for such corrections explicitly justified through the city ordinances that govern billboards.
Meloy explained confidently, “The key was establishing a good record of events as they unfolded. Most of the time was taken at the administrative level, where that record was carefully and diligently established and then provided as supporting evidence in our case.”
Revolutions appears to have ignored the corrections made by zoning staff and constructed the billboards their own way, without adjusting for the setback problems stipulated. Setbacks with regard to billboards are determined in two ways: either by the distance of 25 feet from the street to where the edge of the board itself will align, and where the surrounding area is at least 30% developed (Section 17.45.075); or where the setback is established in line with existing buildings adjacent to the site (Section 17.42.040 (A)).
The zoning staff cited Revolutions for their violations, some of which could easily be identified by sight alone, while others had to be measured. Some boards encroached as much as 16 feet into the setback area. One billboard, located next to Dahl Ford on East Kimberly, actually obscured Dahl’s own business signage. Vinge Dahl expressed his feelings over the court’s ruling, “We've been a dealer of cars since 1937, and I have paid no small measure in property taxes to the City of Davenport, which I have never contested because I want to be a good citizen. So where is the consideration for me, the contribution my business makes to Davenport, or any small business in the area for that matter, if some out-of-towner can come and deliberately encroach upon us? Needless to say I think it is great that the City fought this outrage and won. It is great for the entire community.”
Revolutions appealed to the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustments (ZBA), an independent governing body with the authority to override or uphold the zoning staff’s recommendations. When the ZBA decided in favor of the City, Revolutions took it to court for a third party ruling. Revolutions argued that the City’s ordinances governing billboards were vague, and that Revolutions was going by language for measurements identified in the City’s business signage ordinance, which governs self-signage for a businesses located on the same property. According to the court’s ruling, “Plaintiff [Revolutions] argues that the City and the Board [ZBA] improperly interpreted the zoning setback ordinance. It claims that section 17.42.040 does not pertain to billboards, but rather to buildings.” However, the ZBA found that within the ordinance definition of “structure,” advertising signs and billboards are specifically included (17.04.510).
The evidence was overwhelmingly in favor of the City. Specifications with the zoning staff’s express corrections were presented as exhibits, the ordinance’s language spoke for itself, and Meloy presented persuasive arguments for standing by the ZBA against Revolutions’ absolute disregard for the City’s laws. In all cases with respect to Revolutions’ billboards, both the ZBA and the District Court upheld the zoning staff’s findings.
Since Revolutions’ appeal was overruled, their billboards will have to be removed. They cannot simply reset them because, since the initial construction of the boards, the City of Davenport has changed its ordinances with respect to setback and separation distances and the boards cannot comply with the new specifications.
Revolutions can appeal the court’s decision to Iowa’s Supreme Court. But doing so only highlights the irony that Lamar, through a series of transactions, ended up purchasing Revolutions’ billboards, and is now in the position of having to defend their right to keep as many of them standing as they can (even though Revolutions is still the named litigant in the court proceedings). When Revolutions first appeared in Davenport with permit applications in hand, Lamar’s own Chris Iverson was on the front lines championing the cause of prudent, community-friendly billboards, claiming that Lamar would never consider such placements out of respect for the public’s best interest. During city council meetings, and via the media, Iverson claimed that, even though they had the same opportunities that Revolutions had to secure those locations, Lamar had taken the high road and elected to forgo them. Iverson emphasized his sense of responsibility through his involvement with the city’s zoning board to help draft a revised billboard ordinance that reflected sensitivity toward issues such as historic districts, inner city sites, and proximity to residential neighborhoods, along with sensible setback and distance-between-boards requirements.
However, once Lamar became the owner of Revolutions’ twenty plus billboards, including the five boards that were illegally placed by Revolutions, they were forced to deal with a financial, as well as a legal conflict of interest with that position. “My frustration over the situation cannot be overstated,” Iverson explains. “We inherited these boards and the problems that came with them. Revolutions swooped in here and secured spots by paying far more rent than the market will bear because they knew they were going to sell the leases out soon. There are definitely some placements of theirs that I would not have built, but there are some that I would have, to be honest. But even after securing the permits, it appears they misplaced a few of the boards according to setback requirements, so Lamar could end up losing them. Now I have to make the best of a situation amidst legal constraints, and some financial challenges, especially when considering property owners who have leases for the billboards. On top of that, Revolutions needs to be able to give us clear title to these boards and that’s not likely to occur under the circumstances. There are some boards that we would be happy to take down, but there are some that we would like to keep, as well. Ultimately, I am confident we will get back to the way things were before Revolutions came to town and created all this trouble.”
In testimony given during the court hearing, Iverson claimed that the City was not consistent with their setback requirements and that they made exceptions for variances with other billboard placements. He cited the billboard located on Brady and East Kimberly in front of Office Depot as an example of such an exception. That particular billboard was erected using the 25ft. rule, rather than the existing buildings rule. The City explained that the reason the existing line rule didn’t apply was because the surrounding buildings were being demolished and the existing line would soon be non-existent. Therefore, the 25ft rule was more appropriate.
It is no secret that to remove the boards, Lamar will incur a significant expense. But Lamar was aware of that possibility, especially when their local spokesperson complained, both professionally and personally, about the ruthless tactics of the rogue company, Revolutions, when they first appeared. It could be argued that Lamar has nothing to lose by pursuing their appeal to a higher court and no doubt they are financially motivated to do so. But what happened to the high road with respect to the billboards themselves? While Lamar did not physically construct them under such adverse conditions, they are ultimately responsible for their existence. The billboards do not comply with existing ordinances, nor can they hope to in the future. In the larger picture, the City did the right thing by seeking to remove a mere five boards from the onslaught of nearly twenty, most constructed in one year’s time throughout the city. The Planning & Zoning Staff, the Zoning Board of Adjustments, and now the 7th Judicial District Court, have all decreed that five of those twenty billboards are in violation of city ordinance, therefore must be removed or Revolutions (or Lamar by default) will be found in contempt of court. Preservationists, business owners and city officials alike are asking, "How many authorities must declare it so before Lamar is willing to return to the high road?"