On November 5, Spokane County voters will be asked to cast advisory votes on two issues. The results are non-binding, but the Board of County Commissioners is expected to abide by the voters' wishes. If propositions one and two are passed, many billboards around the county would be phased out and a small property tax would be extended to help purchase open land for permanent conservation.
Banning Billboards -- They're as American as whitewall tires, but to some they're about as ugly as roadkill. We're talking billboards: Are they a great business opportunity to be pursued in a free country? An eyesore? A distraction? The battle rages on, and now voters get to weigh in on the issue as the County Commissioners have put a billboard ban -- Proposition 2 -- on the November ballot. It's just an advisory vote, so the commissioners would still have to approve and enforce the ban. And getting rid of the giant reader boards may not be simple at all.
"It was Kate [McCaslin] and John [Roskelley] who voted to put it on the ballot," says Commissioner Phil Harris. "I voted no. I've asked our attorneys, and I can't seem to get a straight answer -- what if this goes through and we find out it's unconstitutional?"
That issue may be clarified very soon. Billboard owner Lamar Outdoor Advertising -- a 100-year-old company based in Baton Rouge, La., -- has sued Spokane County in an effort to keep the proposition off the ballot. A judge will be hearing arguments in the suit before the end of the week.
"Our attorneys looked at the sign code and concluded that the proposition is unconstitutional," says Scott Butterfield, Lamar Outdoor Advertising's regional director for the Northwest. "It could end up not being on the ballot at all. That's up to the judge, of course."
Butterfield says his company has been working "for years" with the county commissioners trying to come up with fair billboard regulations.
"Harris has been a big supporter -- but we still feel like they don't want to work with us," says Butterfield. "We think it's a property rights issue. How can the government come in and take your property away?"
Where Roskelley has been an opponent of billboards for a long time, Harris has always said that he's not supporting any regulations that will put a legal business out of business.
There's organized local support for the proposition, as well. Suzanne Markham has worked with the grassroots organization Scenic Spokane for a little more than four years, trying to rid the local landscape of as many billboards as possible.
"We started the group because the billboard companies were going for 500-foot spacing, on both sides of the street," says Markham. "We could see where that was going -- all of Spokane was going to look like Ruby or Division or Sprague."
She says that their research shows that a billboard recoups its investment in about three years, so allowing the billboard companies to gradually get rid of the boards over a seven-year period is fair to everyone.
"This way the company can make back its investment and then take down the board and take it somewhere else," says Markham. "I mean, it's not like we wish this on someone else, but we just don't want them around here."
Some have accused Harris of being in Lamar's pocket during his current campaign for reelection, but Harris completely rejects that.
"Yes, they gave $500 to my campaign, but that was way before this thing ever made the ballot," he says.
Harris has several Lamar billboards up across the county.
"I paid $6,100 for those," he says. Public Disclosure Commission reports confirm that payment. "Some said that I endorsed Lamar's lawsuit, but that's not correct. I agree with Lamar, but not with the lawsuit. I still think getting rid of the billboards is unconstitutional."
Markham says Harris is beginning to sound like a broken record. "I don't know what it is that he wants. We have sent him and his legal department countless case studies from across the country showing how this can be done," she says. "Why isn't that good enough for him? Why aren't documented proof and court cases enough to satisfy him?"
Under the proposal, the county would be given the green light to phase out billboards along county-maintained roads -- that's 19 billboards in and around downtown Spokane and 98 located in the Spokane Valley. There has been a ban on new billboards in unincorporated Spokane County since 1998.
"That's an interesting perspective that people seem to forget about. If Proposition 2 passes, it would affect those billboards in the Valley as well," says Markham. "The new city doesn't incorporate until March, so they would have to undo this new legislation, if it passes."
Even if the ban passes, there will still be billboards left in Spokane. The 69 billboards located along state or federal highways such as Trent and the Pullman Highway are not going anywhere, because they fall under state and federal jurisdiction.
Banning billboards seems to be one of those issues where there's very little common ground to be found between the opposing groups.
"Getting rid of billboards has been done in many other communities across the nation," says Markham. "The owners of the billboards can keep filing their bogus lawsuits, but we still think it can be done."
Butterfield says he's only heard of one other proposition like this one.
"It was in Missouri, and it got defeated. It's still unusual that this would end up on the ballot," he says.
Harris says all the case-studies he knows about have involved some sort of settlement with the billboard companies in question.
"I still believe we would end up having to pay the company to take down the billboards," says Harris. "I think it'll be voted down -- I don't think the majority of people have a problem with billboards."
Conservation Futures -- Growth management plans. Public hearings. Preservation of farmland. Roadless areas. Urban growth areas. Wildlife corridors. Annexations. Bird flyways. Most of the wild land that was once so abundant on this continent is now clearly labeled, designating its use. As the urban areas continue to grow, it's become increasingly necessary to set aside some land to simply be, well, land. Wild. Untouched. Open spaces left for nothing but future enjoyment. On this November ballot, voters will be asked if they'd like Spokane County to continue to preserve land like this -- or if the little more than 3,300 acres already preserved under the Conservation Futures Program is enough.
Back in 1971, the Washington state legislature allowed counties across the state to buy land that had specific and significant value either for the wildlife living on it, or for the people living around it. To pay for the land, the counties were allowed to tax their residents with up to 6.25 cents per $100,000 of assessed property value. Spokane caught up with the idea in 1994, according to the Spokane County Parks Department's Web site, when the county commissioners adopted the Conservation Futures Program for the first time -- just for a three-year period. The tax then -- and still today -- is 6 cents per $100,000 assessed value. In 1997, the Conservation Futures program made it on the advisory ballot, and voters gave it another five years. This November 5 it's on the ballot again as the Spokane County Proposition 1.
"This vote is just about being able to continue the same amount of tax, it's not about a change in tax level," says Richard Stewart, co-chair of the campaign that supports Proposition 1. "If it passes, then the program will go for five years." He adds that as far as he knows, Spokane is the only Washington county approving the Conservation Futures Program by a vote.
"This is a non-binding vote; even if it passes it's still up to the county commissioners to enact the program," says Stewart.
Since 1994, the Conservation Futures program has allowed the county to purchase more than 3,300 acres of wild land. Some of it is located in the unincorporated area of the county; other parcels lie within the city limits.
"The county is responsible for the program, and the land subcommittee does the day-to-day work," says Stewart. "With the properties that have been purchased, in some cases the sellers have given back part of the money in an endowment to take care of the maintenance costs of the land."
All in all, 14 properties have been purchased and two donated to the county, since '94.
In some cases, for instance at the Feryn Ranch property off Mount Spokane Road, the county has been able to use the Conservation Futures funds to levy federal grants to purchase more land. In 2001, the county received a grant totaling $978,641 from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. Of that money, $73,000 went to purchase 27 acres of farmland on the Feryn Ranch, so it could remain wetland and have its natural habitat restored. The place is a wetland migratory corridor, used by at least 100 different migratory bird species.
"The money goes specifically to purchase open spaces, to maintain a nice habitat, to keep clean air and water. Or for non-human habitat, for instance to preserve a bird flyway," says Stewart. "This is land that, if it was to be developed, it would lose the benefit to the wildlife. Once it's purchased, it's supposed to stay in a natural state, not be developed."
The deed on the land falls to the jurisdiction it's under: areas in the city are owned by the city, and the county owns areas outside of the city limits.
Stewart says that preserving wild spaces within or right next to developed areas heightens the standard of living and has a positive effect on property prices and the attractiveness of an area in general.
So far there is no organized opposition to the campaign for Proposition 1.
"We don't have a big campaign," says Stewart, who works at Home Depot and is a graduate of the Leadership Spokane program. "The only people who will vote against this are the ones who are just against all taxes as a knee-jerk reaction. This is such a small tax -- but it helps a great program." n
The Conservation Futures group is holding an informational
open house, complete with a slide show and a question-
and-answer forum, on Thursday, Oct. 17, at 5:30 pm at
the Avista Auditorium, 1411 E. Mission. Call: 443-1319.