In a sign of how badly Fort Worth wants to see Interstate 35W expanded, the City Council changed a 20-year-old billboard ordinance this week designed to clean up the appearance of highways.
But the still-restrictive ordinance could delay the project if the sign owners force the Texas Department of Transportation to buy the billboards through the lengthy and costly condemnation process, according to advertising company executives.
Under the change adopted in a 7-2 vote Tuesday night, owners can relocate signs in the I-35W corridor only if four of their other signs in scenic districts in the city are removed.
Jake Smith, president of Clear Channel Outdoor, a national advertising company that owns 14 of the affected signs, said the ordinance could force delays in the long-awaited highway project.
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“The new ordinance requiring that we permanently remove four billboards to relocate one solves nothing, will not be utilized by the industry and will result in a condemnation process that will take six months or more,” Smith said in a statement.
Smith was speaking not only for his company but also on behalf of Lamar Advertising and CBS Outdoor Advertising. Combined, the three companies own 24 of the 25 affected signs in the path of the I-35W expansion from downtown to Loop 820.
Robert Hinkle, director of corporate affairs for North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners, the contractor doing the expansion, expressed confidence that the condemnation process will not delay the project.
“The beauty of the design of the construction process is that it allows for a lot of different things to be going on at the same time,” Hinkle said, adding that the ordinance benefits the project because it gives his company an official policy to start the acquisition process.
“The right-of-way acquisition is critical to us. Whether it is a billboard or a building or relocating a structure of some kind, we have to get that done first,” Hinkle said.
The project’s groundbreaking is scheduled for May.
Jason Lamers, chief of staff for the city, said in a statement that “it’s almost inevitable that the state’s eminent domain process would come into play at some point.”
“The decision made by the City Council was difficult, but Mayor Betsy Price and others believe it was a thoughtful compromise that provides certainty for all parties about the city’s position on the relocation of billboards along the I-35 corridor. More importantly, it allows this major highway project to move forward as quickly as possible,” Lamers said.
Exception to the rule
The sign ordinance, adopted 20 years ago, did not allow new signs to be built along freeways and prohibited existing structures from being moved from their original site.
However, the state Transportation Department asked the city to grant an exception to the signs affected by the I-35W expansion to help the agency avoid paying millions for the signs, Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa said at Tuesday’s pre-council meeting.
In a statement, Smith said, “The adopted ordinance could cost state taxpayers as much as $40 million overall, plus the significant project delay that will occur since the signs will have to go through the condemnation process.”
Council members said they supported the change to prevent any delay in the roadway expansion. Buying the signs — either outright or through condemnation — would cost the state time and money.
“Obviously, time is of the essence with I-35,” Councilman Sal Espino said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “Every day we delay is every day we get more phone calls about congestion on I-35. I don’t think we can defer any further action on billboards and signs.”
But council members Danny Scarth and Gyna Bivens, who voted against the change, said more time was needed to study the issue.
“I really got the idea that had we had more time, we may have been able to incorporate some of those suggestions we heard [Tuesday] night into an ordinance that could have been better,” Bivens said.
The issue drew several speakers, both for and against the ordinance change, to the council meeting, including Smith and billionaire and community leader Robert Bass.
“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.
Bass was opposed to letting the signs move at all. At the other end of the spectrum, Smith recommended that the council take the issue to a workshop to hear more ideas to better mitigate the effects of the expansion.
“We, as an industry, want this project to come through,” Smith said. “We have dealt with many road projects in the DFW area, and we have relocated 60 to 70 structures in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We understand growth. We want growth. Our customers want growth.”
Crafting an ordinance
City staffers had previously proposed a less-restrictive policy that would have allowed the relocation of all signs in the corridor that are zoned in industrial districts. Signs in other zoning districts or scenic corridors could not be moved.
Under that proposal, which was attached as the proposed council action to the meeting agenda, 14 signs would have been eligible to move, and NTE Mobility Partners indicated that it would have allocated $1 million for city-specific projects, such as installing a fiber-optic cable along I-35W for the city’s traffic signal system, Costa said.
During Tuesday’s pre-council meeting, however, staffers said their recommendation was to allow relocation only if the companies give up four other signs and move them to industrial districts.
That policy passed later that night and is similar to the original ordinance, which allowed signs in place before the ordinance was adopted to be maintained but upgraded only if the owner takes down four other signs.
Price said the council was not happy with the less-restrictive recommendation.
“In pre-council, we had a long discussion about it, and the concession seemed to be that we liked the one closest to our [original] ordinance,” Price said.
“It was not an easy place to get to, because you are talking about people’s businesses and advertising, but you are also talking about the long-term scenic approach,” she said of the council’s decision.
Smith said the ordinance adopted Tuesday night was not a compromise, because the industry was not involved in the discussion.
“We were shocked to have the goal line moved the day of the hearing with little or no public disclosure,” Smith said in a statement.
The Transportation Department did not have this new policy when it was building Chisholm Trail Parkway in southwest Fort Worth. Costa said the department — which had to remove 15 signs for that project — could spend an average of $1 million on each billboard acquired for construction of the parkway.
If companies decide to use the new policy, the Transportation Department will have to pay for the four signs the company is giving up to relocate the one sign in the corridor, Hinkle said.
The policy change does allow the state to testify during potential court proceedings that Fort Worth’s sign ordinance includes a relocation policy.
Still, Scarth said, even an extra week might have enabled the city to develop a plan that could leverage the savings of a deal into additional work on the project.
“If we had some sort of compromise, maybe been a little more creative, perhaps we could have eliminated just as many billboards or relocated them to another area to create a savings,” he said earlier in the week.