Two developers say they’ve found an international retailer willing to invest at least $2 million into a former Longview diner property that sits at one of the city’s busiest intersections.

However, John King and Grant Gary have encountered an obstacle involving the three-sided billboard towering over the former Waffle Shoppe at Marshall Avenue and Spur 63 and the city’s 2003 sign ordinance.

Though King and Gary have worked 18 months to broker a deal — even forging an agreement with Lamar Advertising that would remove the sign — they likely won’t get the blessing of municipal staff unless they meet sign ordinance requirements.

Neither the developer nor city officials have disclosed the name of the interested retailer, but Mayor Andy Mack said it is a major brand that will attract customers regardless of the billboard.

“Knowing that I know who the applicant is and the strength of their marketing and advertising,” Mack said, “in my opinion, the billboard that they’re trying to remove will have zero effect on their business. They’re so strong in their branding that people will go to them no matter who’s around them.”

Developers don’t need city staff’s recommendation to obtain variances to the sign ordinance that would move the project forward.

However, they would need a super-majority vote of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, but that board’s vote is final. It isn’t a City Council or Planning and Zoning Commission decision.

“We’ve invested too much time (and) money, and I think the net gain for the city is way too great for this to be shot down because of someone’s taste or distaste for signage,” King said, “or for billboards or for whatever it is.”

In 2003, the city adopted a sign ordinance that outlawed any new, reconstructed or converted billboards from being installed in Longview unless at least two existing billboards were removed. The ordinance also prohibited “any sign using any combination of forms, words, colors or lights which imitate standard public traffic regulatory, emergency signs or signals, flashing signs or snipe signs.”

Gary said the ordinance doesn’t specifically prohibit digital billboards.

“At the same time, there is the ability for a variance,” he said.

“I want to be cautious here. We’ve met with city staff on multiple occasions, and they had originally been supportive of the project, but as we continued working on the project, when the component of bringing down the billboard came up, their tune changed,” Gary continued, “but there had been support, and I do think there was support for redeveloping this corridor.”

The 2003 ordinance followed a 12-month moratorium that prohibited any new billboards. The community banter over signs was so memorable that developers say they’ve already been warned by members of the City Council, including the mayor.

“He just kind of cautioned me on the aspects of emotions on this deal, so he didn’t really indicate one way or another on it,” King said. “It was more or less a ... this was a boar’s nest last time, and it could very well turn into that again.”

Mack said Friday, “This has always been a volatile issue because businesses want as big a sign as they can possibly get and the citizens want no signs, so it’s a balancing act. ... It was almost a yearlong process (to create the sign ordinance), and it was very difficult because it was hard to make everybody happy because there were different viewpoints on it.”

Looking for a deal

Representatives for the developers’ prospective tenant said they wanted the sign removed before they would invest at the site, so King and Gary turned to Lamar to work out a deal.

In exchange for removing the tri-billboard, developers would pay for converting three other Lamar-owned billboards elsewhere in Longview from vinyl, paper or plastic into digital or LED signs.

Developers didn’t disclose which existing billboards that they’re proposing to convert to digital but said that one is in District 6 and two are in District 4. They’ve also gotten support from council members Steve Pirtle and Kristen Ishihara, who represent those districts.

Ishihara “is kind of guiding me through the nuance of how to approach the other council members,” King said.

“The one thing that is preventing this from moving forward is the Lamar sign,” King said. “Planning and Zoning has indicated they it will not be in favor of this (because of the) sign ordinance — really city staff.”

Development Services Director Michael Shirley said the deal between the developers and Lamar would violate the digital sign prohibition and also doesn’t meet the city’s two-for-one requirement.

“We don’t make recommendations based on personal feelings,” Shirley said of Planning and Zoning staff. “We make a professional opinion interpreting the rules, state law, local guidelines and the Comprehensive Plan, and based on that, there is a desire from the community and the council that billboards should be highly restricted and they shouldn’t be digital. And if you’re going to try to put one up, you’ve got to take two down.”

Shirley recalled the community reactions and billboard moratorium that led the city to create the sign ordinance in 2003 and that further restricted new billboards in 2008.

“They specifically wrote in the language that digital signs can not be used as billboards,” he said, “and at that time, (former Mayor) Jay (Dean) said, ‘We’re not talking about billboards. … We’re not opening the door for digital billboards.’”

The ordinance

The Comprehensive Plan adopted five years ago included a specific theme for Longview to pursue a scenic city certification, and “One of the main things that they require to be a scenic city is that you have to have a prohibition on new billboards — not just very strict requirements like we do, but an all-out prohibition,” Shirley said.

“It’s just every step along the way, the community and the council has told us on the whole that they’re not supportive of that,” he added, “so that’s where we get our direction.”

There also is direction that staff has received from the courts.

In the mid-2000s, Lamar Advertising wanted to repair three of its billboards in Longview, but the city said that would trigger the two-to-one requirement — meaning it would have to tear down six other existing signs.

The company sued the city in state court, but the Zoning Board of Adjustment and later the court ruled with the city. Lamar appealed the decision, but a state court of appeals affirmed the decision, Shirley said.

“So that’s where our very basic lack of support for billboards comes from,” he said of the past community and court actions.

It’s unclear when the Zoning Board of Adjustment would consider any variances at the Waffle Shoppe site because the city hasn’t received a formal application from developers, staff said.

“They’ve not given us any formal locations as far as where they’d like to make conversions. We don’t even know what variances they would need because it’s probably going to be multiple variance per location if they were to pursue,” Shirley said. “It’s like it’s shrouded in secrecy.”

Developers say they’re also in the dark over city staff’s reasoning.

“They’ve just kind of given us the stiff-arm to say that it’s not something that would be supported by city staff,” Gary said, “and they’ve just kind of pointed back to the code at the end of the day, so there’s not been a specific reason. “And we’ve remained at the ready with Lamar to go over and address any concerns whether it’s timing or people looking up at the billboard or any other safety (or) traffic concerns, and we’ve cited other markets where they’ve converted digital billboards, one being Tyler.”

The restaurant site is at the corner of West Marshall Avenue and North Spur 63. A recent transportation survey determined about 87,000 motorists pass through the intersection each day, King said. Across the street, Regions Bank is building a new branch, and Whataburger recently remodeled its restaurant nearby on the other side of Spur 63.

“We wanted the community at large to understand ... that we’re not just simply asking for something that would benefit us,” King said, “but we’re looking for something that would benefit the micro-economy of that part of Longview and also the greater hurrying of development for that corridor.”