This story has been corrected from an earlier version.
Longview leaders might revisit the city’s billboard sign ordinances for the first time in 16 years.
Two members of the City Council hinted at reopening the discussion during a meeting Tuesday in which the Zoning Board of Adjustment denied one variance and permanently tabled requests for two other variances to the ordinances.
Lamar Advertising needed the variances in order to convert three existing static billboard signs into new digital signs — and fulfill its part of an agreement that would seal a redevelopment deal to transform the vacant Waffle Shoppe restaurant at West Marshall Avenue and Spur 63 into a Starbucks store.
It’s the first time the board has permanently tabled a variance request in at least 15 years, if ever, said Development Services Director Michael Shirley.
Unlike a traditional tabling action that delays a board’s vote until a future meeting, the zoning board’s permanent tabling Tuesday leaves Lamar with effectively the same courses of action as the denial. For the board to consider the variance requests again, Lamar would have to resubmit its application, though it could appeal the denied request to a state district court.
John King Jr., with JBK Real Estate and Brokerage, said after the board’s decisions that he would have to speak with other developers and their prospective tenant about whether they will continue to pursue the deal.
The five-member zoning board — whose decisions can’t be changed by the council or any other municipal board — needs a supermajority of at least 75% of the board, or four votes, to grant a variance.
After a public hearing with nearly 90 minutes of discussion, board members Jim Mobley, Jason Jones and chairman Chad Harkey voted in favor of allowing Lamar to convert its static billboard sign at 611 E. Marshall Ave. to a digital face. However, nay votes from Kirt Villyard and Dutch DeBlouw were enough to block a supermajority and reject Lamar’s application.
After thinking they needed to take just one vote, the board appeared ready to adjourn. Shirley said board members knew that the redevelopment deal needed all three variances — including at 472 E. Loop 281 and 1621 W. Loop 281. With the board denying one of the applications, “it was their understanding that it was a moot point,” Shirley said.
However, Lamar and developers asked that the board to continue with the agenda and conduct the public hearings.
The zoning board later voted unanimously to permanently table both variance requests on Loop 281.
Councilmen Steve Pirtle and David Wright were among at least 15 speakers at the meeting.
Pirtle wanted the board to grant the variances, while Wright asked that the requests be tabled, but both said they will ask other council members to consider revisiting the sign ordinances.
“I just think that’s something we need to look at,” said Pirtle, whose district includes the Waffle Shoppe site and one of the proposed locations for a digital sign.
“Things have changed. Times have changed. Technology has changed. I think the people in town have changed. I think that they are used to (digital signs) now,” Pirtle said. “Maybe we can get rid of a lot of signs. We’re always compared to Tyler. They seem to have gotten rid of a lot of theirs.”
Wright didn’t guarantee what his opinion would be on the sign ordinance conversation but said he will bring up the idea of revisiting the ordinances with the rest of the seven-member council.
As for the zoning board’s decision, “Really, I think it was the correct decision,” Wright said. “I think that was something that should have been handled by the council with possible change in the ordinance, but I think it was handled correctly.”
Council members could ask that staff and consultants examine the sign ordinances as part of the ongoing Unified Development Code process, Shirley said.
“That has not been something that has been a part of the process, but it may become” part of the process, Shirley said. “The sign ordinance is a component of the UDC, and our initial charge from the council … was to basically modernize the sign portion as it relates to court cases — that there wasn’t going to be a wholesale overhaul.”
Zoning board meetings usually draw fewer than 10 people in the audience and last about 20 minutes, but more than 50 residents packed the City Council Chambers on Tuesday.
Many of the speakers were in favor of granting the variances.
Jay Knight, who owns a business near the Marshall Avenue-Spur 63 intersection, said he was “very much for aesthetics” and liked the sign ordinance, but he asked the board to grant the variances.
“If we don’t get businesses here, then we don’t have anyone here in the city to be pretty for,” Knight said.
Robert Olds, who owns the Waffle Shoppe property, said that adding digital signs gives the community more ways to alert drivers during emergency situations such as Amber alerts or when messages need to reach a large number of people.
Several people spoke in opposition, including Planning and Zoning Commission Chairwoman Frankie Parson.
“I would ask that all of you please have some respect for the ordinance that in the years 2002-08 were discussed and vetted thoroughly and more recently through the Comprehensive Plan,” Parson told the zoning board.
“The request itself is in complete contradiction of the existing ordinance,” property owner and businessman Keene Guidry said. “To allow development in violation of our ordinances through power and money diminishes the very purpose of the law. If you vote yes today, you set a precedent that lets everyone know our ordinances may be circumvented just for the sake of development by those who have influence.”
Shirley brought up the city’s history on the issue in making his point that the zoning board should turn down the applications.
The City Council created a Sign Task Force on June 13, 2002. It later enacted a moratorium on billboards that ultimately lasted about a year while the task force heard from residents, businesses and advertising companies about the issue, Shirley said.
The sign ordinance was adopted in three phases between Aug. 28, 2003, and Nov. 13, 2003.
In 2005, Lamar replaced three signs along with their supporting poles on Green Street without any permits, Shirley said. The applicants appealed to the city’s Construction Advisory and Appeals Board, and in 2006 appealed the interpretation of the sign ordinance to the zoning board. After both boards denied the appeals, Lamar filed suit against the city in Gregg County’s 188th District Court, which later ruled in the city’s favor. A resulting appeal from Lamar to the 6th Court of Appeals in Texarkana led to the same result.
“Redevelopment, I think if it’s done well, it’s a boon to the citizens and the tax base,” Karen Maines, who served on the Sign Task Force, said, “but as the city of Longview citizens wanted limitations on signs, we have to consider their wishes.”
Lamar and developers needed the variances because of the sign ordinances that place restrictive limits on billboard/off-premise signs and changeable copy signs also known as digital.
Changeable copy signs, which were restricted in city laws in 2008, are allowed only to advertise a commercial business at the same site or as a noncommercial sign, according to the city’s ordinance. Changeable copy signs must be a maximum 64 square feet with a maximum height of 20 feet.
Billboard/off-premise signs are prohibited in the city except in commercial and industrial zoning districts and only on a 2-to-1 removal/replacement basis, meaning that with the variances, Lamar would need to move the tri-billboard and three additional existing signs in order to digitize or erect three signs — effectively a 6-to-3 ratio.
Billboards can’t be within 1,000 feet of any residential-zoned district, public park, public forest, public playground or scenic area, and they must have a minimum separation area of 3,000 feet from any other billboards.
Dan Noyes with Lamar Advertising said the company is removing nine sign panels of 672 square feet, which is almost three times the square footage of digital signage being added.
During discussions before the zoning board votes, Mark Priestner, a Tyler consultant representing Lamar and the developers, said the variances would allow the sign advertising company to take off one static face at each of the three existing billboards.
“We feel that these digital billboards are not detrimental to the city of Longview,” Priestner told the zoning board. “We feel that the need for the redevelopment of the Highway 80 project … is enough of an impetus to make this happen, and it’s not a bit scary.”
Shirley asked the zoning board to consider the wording of variance requests, which didn’t contractually bind Lamar to remove the three-sided billboard at the restaurant site.
“Consider the application. There’s nothing in the application, and there’s nothing in the variance that says we can hold them from removing that sign,” Shirley said. “That gets into kind of, ‘If you let me do this, then I’ll do this,’ and in the zoning world that’s contractual zoning, which is frowned upon by the courts.”
Mobley said that Shirley’s recommendation seemed to contradict the board’s purpose of considering variances to city ordinances.
Shirley answered, “That’s the board’s ability is to look at it and make that decision. I’m telling you that in my opinion, that’s what the law states and that’s what you’re charged with doing.”
Jones said that the billboard and digital sign issues were addressed more recently in Tyler, and that it’s cleaned up signage, “and most of their population are happy with it.”
“We give variances all the time,” Jones said. “I feel like we have the autonomy to do it. If it opens something later in the courts, so be it. That’s not what we considering. … We’re a variance board.”
Mobley, who made the motion to grant the variance, said businesses need media including billboard signs to reach prospective customers.
King later added, “I feel like we’re really fenced in by rules that were written 16 years ago … and this would be the gateway that would open that up.”
Harkey said that the city’s timetable for getting the tenant to redevelop the site might close because of more delays, as developers have said they’ve been working on the deal for up to two years.
“Starbucks may decide they don’t want to do this,” Harkey said. “How many more years is (the property) going to stay like this? It’s an eyesore.”