Federal judge upholds Virginia city’s billboard ban

Monday, February 19, 2001

A federal judge recently ruled that a 15-year-old ban on new billboards in Virginia Beach, Va., doesn’t violate the First Amendment rights of the area’s largest billboard company.

But an attorney for Adams Outdoor Advertising, a Minnesota-based company with an office in nearby Norfolk, said they might appeal.

David Flint, who’s based in Atlanta, says the measure violates the First Amendment by effectively eliminating an entire medium from the city, not unlike a law barring the use of television or newspapers.

“We just got backed into a corner trying to find some way to relieve the pressure,” Flint said in a telephone interview. “We’re trying to deal with the fact that it’s a blanket, total prohibition, which, in my opinion, is an open question on whether cities and counties can do that.”

But a deputy city attorney for Virginia Beach says it’s well accepted in court and municipal affairs that a city can ban new billboards in an effort to clean its landscape.

“It’s not violating anybody’s First Amendment rights,” William Macali said. “They can appeal this case, but we don’t expect the result to be any different.”

The Virginia Beach City Council approved the ban of all new billboards in 1986 as part of a citywide beautification effort. The law forbade the construction of new signs, but, in accordance with state law, allowed older billboards to remain. The city also restricted the height and size of business signs.

But in an attempt to rid the city of existing billboards, the council required owners to pull a billboard down when repairs cost more than half of its original cost. The city also ordered the destruction of billboards when the property below it is developed or renovated.

Flint says the company has worked with its remaining 47 billboards for more than a decade. But it challenged the ordinance when the city began stepping up efforts to rid the city of existing billboards.

The company filed an eight-count complaint in federal court last August.

The company also has four cases in state court involving one billboard with an expired use permit, another the city claims was improperly repaired and two more officials say were placed on illegally subdivided lots.

“Some of these billboards are 30-years-old, back when it cost about $5,000 to put one up,” Flint said. “So it’s a Catch-22. They either cite you for not maintaining the billboard or if you do maintain them, they cite you for spending more than 50 percent.”

Flint says the city has also dangled building permits in front of some developers, refusing to approve them unless they get rid of billboards on their property.

In a decision released on Feb. 5, U.S. District Court Judge Jerome Friedman dismissed three of Adams’ claims, saying they were not filed within the two-year statute of limitations. Friedman dismissed another that alleged discrimination between commercial and non-commercial speech. He noted that the law bans all new billboards.

Friedman also dismissed Adams’ claim that the law was overbroad and didn’t advance a “substantial government interest.” The judge disagreed, saying an effort to improve public safety and aesthetics is a legitimate city government purpose.

The judge also dismissed two counts involving temporary political signs in residential areas and the entire zoning code. He noted that the company doesn’t own signs in residential zones, so it “has suffered absolutely no injury.”

Flint says Adams Outdoor has until March 2 to appeal Friedman’s decision. He says he hopes the company takes up the challenge because he thinks Virginia Beach is unfairly trying to shut down the billboard industry there.

“They are aggressively trying to destroy what few boards Adams has there,” Flint said. “Obviously, in a short period of time, there’ll be no billboards in Virginia Beach.”

— Phillip Taylor, a reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., is a free-lance correspondent for freedomforum.org.

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