FORT WORTH — In an attempt to help the state avoid buying billboards worth millions of dollars and located in the path of the Interstate 35W expansion, the Fort Worth City Council tweaked a 20-year-old ordinance to allow 25 billboards to relocate.The council voted 7-2 to let the owners of the signs move them from any district to non-scenic, industrial districts only. Sign values along that corridor range from $300,000 to $1.6 million.Council members said they supported the change in policy, which was passed 20 years ago to clean up the visual appearance of highways, to prevent any delay in the crucial roadway expansion.Councilman Sal Espino said the I-35 expansion project, which runs through his district, can’t be delayed.“Obviously, time is of the essence with I-35. Everyday we delay is everyday we get more phone calls about congestion on I-35. I don't think we can defer an further action on billboards and signs,” Espino said. "Not everyone is going to be happy with this compromise, but we have to move quickly. We have to get I-35 widened." But council members Gyna Bivens and Danny Scarth voted against the ordinance change. Scarth, whose district also takes in I-35W, said the council needed more time to come up with a compromise.“I just think we can do better than this,” Scarth said. The decades old ordinance was meant to clean up the visual appearance of highways by prohibiting stand-alone signs in both the city limits and the immediate surrounding area. It did not allow new signs may to be erected and prohibited existing signs from being relocated.But the Texas Department of Transportation asked the city to grant a special exception for 25 signs in the path of the I-35W expansion from downtown to Loop 820 in an effort to reduce project costs, said Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa during Tuesday’s pre-council meeting. The issue brought several speakers, both for and against the ordinance change, to the council meeting, including Fort Worth billionaire and community leader Robert Bass, who spoke against the ordinance change. “Fort Worth has been a leader in limiting billboards. ... I encourage you to vote against this amendment and leave the existing ordinance in place. It has served the city extraordinarily well,” Bass said at the meeting.Brant Ringler, executive director of the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, said billboards are essential to advertising those type of events, and he spoke out for the exception. “I truly feel there is a need for a win-win scenario to be found, one that can continue to provide for our needs, as well as for other businesses that use billboards, as an important element in their overall marketing mix,” Ringler said. Signs that were in place before the city’s current sign ordinance was adopted are allowed to be maintained, but can only be upgraded if the owner takes down four other signs.Keeping with that policy, the council voted to allow relocation in the I-35 corridor only if four other signs are removed. For companies that don’t use of the new policy, TxDOT will be forced to condemn the property and pay for the signs. The policy change allows TxDOT to testify in court during potential condemnation proceedings that Fort Worth’s sign ordinance includes a relocation policy, Costa said. Costa said a sign company has not used the upgrade portion of the ordinance, and he is uncertain how many companies will take advantage of the similar relocation policy. Delaying the change to the ordinance would have delayed TxDOT’s ability to start the land acquisition process and therefore delay the groundbreaking for the $1.5 billion expansion, which is expected in May. The city did not change the ordinance for the construction of the Chisholm Trail Parkway in southwest Fort Worth, and Costa said TxDOT will spend an average of $1 million on each billboard acquired for construction of the parkway. TxDOT had to remove 15 signs for that project, though values for some of the signs are still being contested, Costa said. Costa said the city council had to decide the importance esthetics and the economics of the I-35 project Tuesday night. “The city does have a prohibition against the installation of new billboards for aesthetic reasons. You will be called upon to balance these competing interests,” Costa told the council members.
Caty Hirst, 817-390-7984 Twitter: @catyhirst