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Billboard and Lighted Sign Threat

Editor’s Note: We got this too late for the stated meeting but we want residents to be aware of this issue and let your supervisor’s know this is not acceptable for Washoe Valley.

County Shifts Position; Adds Potential for New billboards

What: Open house to review county’s new draft sign code
Where: Washoe County Complex, 1001 East Ninth Street, Reno
When: Thursday, November 6; 5 to 7 p.m.

Scenic Nevada is opposing the draft sign code being previewed by the public Thursday.

The draft would allow new billboards and digital billboards within the unincorporated county areas, which Scenic Nevada strongly opposes, including a special digital sign for one local business.

The changes are a monumental shift from the current code, which prohibits all new billboards including digitals. The draft was developed by county staff, with direction from county commissioners and feedback from a stakeholders’ group that included Scenic Nevada. Throughout the sessions, begun a year ago, we consistently objected to proposed regulations, allowing new billboards.

The public is invited to the open house and staff will be on hand to answer questions. Comment cards also will be available or email Trevor Lloyd at tlloyd@washoecounty.us

Billboards will have a new name
If approved, the county will call all signs on polls “freestanding” signs, even billboards. Anyone who gets a permit for one can choose to advertise their own business on the sign or sell advertising space, just like a billboard. Business owners could lease space to a billboard company on their property to erect a sign and run changeable ads.

The changes were driven largely by staff’s desire to simplify the sign code and create a “content neutral” approach, requested by county counsel to avoid court challenges by those claiming free speech violations. Billboards most often advertise the goods or services not sold on the property, while on-premise signs advertise the business on the property. Staff won’t be looking at the sign content to determine if it’s a billboard or a business sign.

Under the draft, only one freestanding sign is allowed for each parcel, and this, plus the smaller size could limit their use as billboards.

But, adding digital signs to the mix, which could electronically flash rotating ads every 20 seconds, increases the possibility that business signs could be used as digital billboards.

Also the regulations for freestanding signs are more relaxed than billboard regulations. For instance, freestanding signs can be spaced 75 feet apart under the draft rules. Billboards must be spaced 1,000 feet apart under the current code.

Big Signs for Big Business
At first staff said the signs would range in size from a mere four square feet in residential areas to 200 square feet for larger recreational, industrial and commercial businesses. Digital signs would be allowed but could only be half the size of what is permitted at the business and no bigger than 120 square feet. Digitals also require a public hearing and approval of a special use permit. Digital signs on parcels that have residential and agricultural uses are prohibited. Originally, the larger, conventionally-sized billboards, ranging from 300 to 672 square feet, also were prohibited.
That changed when staff eliminated billboard regulations in July and then in August when County Commissioners Vaughn Hartung and Kitty Jung asked for larger signs for “regional” types of land uses. Staff added new regulations, allowing signs of unlimited size for regional recreation, travel and tourism venues, with a special use permit from the county.
The commission’s new direction for bigger signs would allow local businessman Norm Dianda to erect a conventionally-sized digital billboard. Before the commission’s request, the draft code could have permitted a digital billboard for Mr. Dianda, but it would have been limited in size and had to be located at the venue.

Now, the draft code says applicants who want a sign over 300 square feet and who operate a big recreational or tourist venue can apply to the county commission. Mr. Dianda owns the Wild West Motorsports Park in the county’s East Truckee Canyon area, which qualifies him to apply.
The Wild West venue is blocked by hillsides and can’t be seen by motorists on Interstate 80. Incredibly, staff added a regulation that a larger sign could be permitted either on the “regional” property or one adjacent, if it is next to a highway, and zoned industrial or commercial. Mr. Dianda also owns the industrial property adjacent to the Wild West venue and next to I80. Under the draft code, Mr Dianda could win approvals for the first conventionally-sized digital billboard in the unincorporated County area.
Impacts on McCarran Ranch Project
The Wild West Motorsports Park is located on the north side of I80 across from the restored McCarran Ranch Project. The Nature Conservancy spent $25 million to restore the natural meanders to the Truckee River, removing noxious weeds and planting native vegetation, “revitalizing a broken river for people and nature.” It includes a nine-mile public bike path and a bird and wildlife sanctuary. Mr. Dianda’s sign could operate, 24/7, flashing bright ads in the dark night sky, depended on by nearby wildlife and migrating birds.
Possible Court Challenges

Scenic Nevada believes the code changes will open the door to court challenges, ironically, something county counsel wanted to avoid. The county risks jeopardizing the sign code, if a new digital billboard is permitted for one applicant who fits the “regional” use type and rejected for another who does not. Anyone refused a permit for a billboard under the draft regulations likely will sue the county alleging first amendment, due process and equal protection violations.

It’s unlikely the litigious billboard industry will stand for being shut out of the most lucrative advertising locations in the county; I80 and the newly constructed I580. The industry was knocking at the door at the beginning of the process almost a year ago, when the county agreed to update the sign code. But, county commissioners said then they didn’t want new billboards, new locations or digital billboards. Commissioners had said the bright flashing signs would dim the dark night sky, were unsightly and a distraction to drivers.

Scenic Nevada’s Requests

Scenic Nevada this week asked the county for the following:

To reinstate both sections of the code providing needed regulations for billboards and on-premise business signs, which were tossed in favor of the new draft, Article 505.
Add reasonable changes developed over the past year and included in a chart to regulate business digital and non-digital signs.
Eliminate all the special interest regulations regarding “regional” uses.
Prohibit new billboards, relocations and digital billboards.
Staff said changes likely will be made to the draft as it continues through the public process. The county will hold another stakeholders meeting and a second open house; then get county planning commission recommendations before the draft heads to the county commissioners for final approval.

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