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Sign-Code Wrangling in Rapid City

City enacts stiff sign code

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South Dakota. If you conjure up any association with the state, it’s likely Mount Rushmore, Mitchell’s Corn Palace or perhaps Wall Drug. Or, most likely, you consider it a bucolic, sparsely populated place.
However, conflict has arrived at Rapid City, the Coyote State’s second-largest city with approximately 70,000 residents. Initiated by a public vote, the city has enacted a strict sign code that rankles outdoor-advertising and sign companies.

After I’ve spoken with involved parties, I’ll add details in our November issue’s Editorially Speaking. The broad strokes are these:
• For decades, Rapid City developed a reputation for proliferating billboards. As a rural state heavily dependent on tourism, it knew billboards effectively reached motorists. Perhaps they saturated to excess – In 1974, Chicago Tribune travel writer Kermit Holt wrote that Rapid City’s “roadsides outside [of town] are defaced by such a multiplicity of signs advertising so-called tourist attractions that it defies description. The big mystery to outsiders is why state, county, and municipal officials and lawmakers tolerate this pollution … which is certain to … drive tourists away.”
• For more than three decades, nothing happened. In overreaching response, local residents drafted a petition and gained enough signatures to put a strict local sign code to a vote. It passed in June 2011. This June, Council approved it 7-1. Only July 20, it took effect.
• Guess what organization served as the measure’s greatest cheerleader? Longtime sign-industry antagonist Scenic America and its local affiliate, Scenic Rapid City. “Billboard and Sign Control,” the most prominent topic heading on Scenic America’s homepage, speaks volumes about its agenda. On its website, Scenic Rapid City distorts digital billboards’ presentation by replicating an electronic billboard that changes images roughly once per second. No billboard operator does that.
• The code is divided into three sections: general administrative rules, billboards, and on-premise signs. I haven’t yet investigated on-premise code details, but billboard restrictions include no animation, a mandated eight-second dwell time for static messages, and stricter brightness regulations. Also, on-premise sign owners are reportedly forbidden to selling advertising to off-premise third parties.

Various Rapid City Journal reports say Lamar Outdoor Advertising subsequently filed two lawsuits – one contests Rapid City’s denial of a request to convert a handful of billboards from traditional to digital, and the other to overturn the city’s draconian ordinance as unconstitutional. According to a July 20 Journal piece, the first awaits the opinion of the South Dakota Supreme Court, and the second remains in the discovery phase.

The city has established a “credit” system for billboard operators. To gain a credit to install a new sign, the company must, essentially, take down an old one. In the second lawsuit, according to a September 1, 2011 Journal article, Lamar reportedly wanted to cash in 94 credits, but the city reduced maximum allowable credits to 20. Lamar’s 30-page, filed complaint says the city’s taking property unlawfully without compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

In a July 20, 2010 Journal article, Doug Rumpca, from Lamar’s Rapid City office, says the company removed more than 30 billboards and invested more than $1 million to enhance the infrastructure of existing billboards.

It appears that years of inaction by local officials led to an overreaction, which plays right into the hands of a militant group such as Scenic America.
 

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