The sign stays
Commissioners finalize process to allow Gallatin Canyon billboard to remain
Despite officially submitted protests from 29 qualified landowners in the North Gallatin Canyon Zoning District, Gallatin County Commissioners finalized their decision on Feb. 26 to allow a billboard owned by Saunders Outdoor Advertising, Inc to stay put.
The resolution amends zoning regulations in the small district to allow non-conforming signs to remain, striking the former requirement that they be brought to compliance with in 10 years of the adoption of the district. It also allows the sign to be illuminated if the advertiser should choose to do so, though it is not currently lit.
The commission passed a resolution of intention to initiate a zone text amendment related to zoning requirements on Jan. 8 of this year, opening the 30-day protest period which led to 16 percent of landowners in the district filing protests. Forty percent of landowners needed to file for the amendment adoption process to come to a halt, though, Deputy County Attorney Erin Arnold told the commission the actual process for such an event is technically unclear.
The Feb. 26 decision will likely settle a lawsuit between Saunders and Gallatin County: Saunders filed the suit after 2009 zoning regulations banned billboards in the area but allowed the Saunders billboard in Beckman Flats to remain until 2019.
A word from the public: property values, health effects and discontent
Comments from the public at the recent meeting conveyed the dissatisfaction from residents of the zoning district as well as others who may not live there but felt similar resentment toward the much-contested billboard.
Peter Scherfig has owned a home in the district since 1985 – he said he’s been to a few of the meetings related to the billboard. Gathering input from the prior meetings, he felt many – not just landowners in the district, but anyone that drives Highway 191 – would concur the sign is an eyesore that does not belong.
“I think everybody agrees the beauty of the Gallatin Canyon should be preserved,” said Scherfig. He felt that 99 percent of the landowners in the district opposed the billboard, rather than the official 16 percent that was noted. “I think if you look back since the beginning of this process, that you have way more than that… way over 40 percent protesting this proposed amendment.”
Scherfig’s neighbor, Scott Petersen, also spoke, noting that there are health effects of lighting and illumination. The illumination cast upon Storm Castle cliff face would reflect directly into his home.
“Back in 2009 when it was illuminated… the reflection of those lights basically makes it so it’s like an evening time dusk, 24-hours-a-day,” Petersen described, explaining it is damaging to one of his children’s, who suffers from severe migraines, health. “We’re all human, and there should be some basis for compromise. It seems to me, Saunders legal rights to have a sign, I understand, but some of us, as citizens, our rights too are being infringed upon. It seems to me there could be some kind of compromise in allowing the sign to stand, but maybe not allowing it to be illuminated.”
Gallatin Road resident Bill Lurch, who had also attended other meetings on the issue, offered his opinion on the billboard to the commissioners once more, going over the timeline of regulations that once stated the billboard and illumination of it would eventually go away.
“Many real estate transactions have taken place in the past 10 years with the knowledge that that billboard would be gone in 2019,” said Lurch. By doing a complete about-face at this time, and allowing the sign to not only remain, but be illuminated, you are lowering everyone’s property value. No more will we see the alpenglow on Storm Castle mountain, starry nights, and the Montana dream that we all struggled to invest in, in buying in this pristine area.”
Lurch said local realtors have told him that property values around the sign will likely decrease by 15 to 20 percent. “Your obligations should be to the landowners, voters and taxpayers of this county, and not to idle threats by out-of-state interests,” he said.
History, commission discussion and decision
Commissioner Don Seifert asked Deputy County Attorney Arnold to explain how this situation arose in the first place.
“It’s a long history,” said Arnold, who paraphrased her timetable to litigation only, describing the 2009 compliance issue against Saunders which was appealed to the Gallatin County Board of Adjustment. The board decided that yes, the billboard was in violation of district zoning regulations.
That decision was appealed to district court by Saunders in 2014, litigation ensued, and the suit was finally served in 2017. Saunders alleges that the zoning regulation constitutes a taking of private property. Through discussions with outside legal counsel, and with opposing counsel, one solution was to amend the zoning regulations.
“Not just to resolve this litigation,” said Arnold, “but out of fairness, understanding and the acknowledgement that these zoning regulations are imposing unfair conditions on property interests that existed before zoning regulations were in place.”
Commissioner Seifert moved to amend the resolution as proposed. “These are always tough, for me,” he said, “Because, yes, when this regulation was put in, I think there was some acknowledgement that this may not be something that’s defensible… the ball was just kicked down the road 10 years.”
Seifert continued, “It’s important we understand this sign was in position prior to the zoning regulations, and therefore was what we call ‘grandfathered in.’ The purpose of the zoning regulation is to provide predictability and we have to provide that to all the property owners… not only the people that live there…
This is not one of those things where we decide winners and losers, we have to be fair, and fundamentally fair to all the property owners in that district. In order to do that we need to make the amendments to these regulations.”
Commissioner Scott MacFarlane said he chose to view the decision not as an act the commission is taking to address a lawsuit, but rather, he recognized it as a rare opportunity for a new member of an elected commission to address and correct things that have been done in the past.
“If this kind of zoning language were to come new, before me today, I would not approve of this kind of language,” he said. “There was no zoning in that area, and from what I understand, years ago, people did not want zoning in that area, until there was something that happened they didn’t like, and they created a zoning document that directly addressed one thing that they didn’t like.”
MacFarlane said that type of amortization language, that sets people up for the taking of property by their neighbors, was disagreeable to him. “I don’t think that that’s the right way that we should be addressing each other socially,” he said. “If this were to happen now, in my neighborhood, and my neighbor put up a billboard, those things I would expect protect me should have happened before they had the opportunity to do something on the property that I didn’t like.”
Commission Chairman Joe Skinner readily admitted he was the one that came up with the amortization language that has effectively caused the issue.
“I didn’t feel comfortable with it at the time, but I was hoping that in 10 years we would find a solution,” he said. “We didn’t find a solution, and I just don’t think the language is fair to the landowner. Even though he’s out of state, even though he might have more money than everybody else, it’s not fair when we start doing that, taking uses away without just compensation.”
That county’s compensation to Saunders, if the billboard was removed rather than allowed to stay, was estimated at about $165,000. Arnold noted that that number does not take into account legal and other related fees, which would make it substantially more.
“There’s still opportunity to find a solution,” said Skinner, harking back to earlier public comment which suggested $165,000 is not that much money. “Well, maybe you can come up with the money to Mr. Saunders to take that sign out. I don’t think it’s a dead issue, but I think in the order of fairness we have to make these changes to the regulation.”
The resolution was unanimously approved.