This billboard may seem out of place amongst the beauty of the Gallatin Canyon, but it was erected legally, and efforts by canyon residents and the county to force the sign owner to take it down have failed.

An unfortunate sign

Zoning amendments approved by Gallatin County Commission to allow Gallatin Canyon billboard to remain
With the decision made, the commission will open a 30-day protest period. That information will be published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle soon.

Like it or not, the controversial Saunders Outdoor Advertising billboard in the Beckman Flats area of the Gallatin Canyon will likely remain. Upon the advice of their legal counsel the Gallatin County Commissioners voted unanimously at their weekly meeting on January 8 to approve two amendments to the North Gallatin Canyon Zoning Regulations which effectively allows the much-debated billboard to remain.

The meeting had the feel of a legal trial as Billings attorney Calvin Stacey, representing Gallatin County, explained to the commission that it was in their best interest to make the changes and allow the sign to remain. Passionate and lengthy public testimonials followed, and a gavel was even required quell the comments from a public attendee who was more than displeased with the final decision.

Stacey sympathized with the concerns of the public against allowing the billboard to remain, readily admitting it was an eyesore, “But, it is an eyesore that was legally constructed at a time that there were no zoning regulations in effect,” Stacey said, explaining that the sign was permitted by the Montana Department of Transportation, Saunders paid the fee, and it was inspected.

Had the zoning regulations been in place, Stacey said, the sign could never have been installed. “But that’s hindsight, that’s Monday morning quarterbacking, and we don’t have that benefit.”

Public comment from Canyon residents touched upon the sign’s impediment on the safety and beauty of the canyon – the heart of what the 2009 zoning district aims to adress. One attendee who spoke at the January 8 meeting called for the commissioners to deny the amendments, and rather pay Saunders the fair and just compensation to take the sign down. Another requested that if the commissioners would not have the sign removed, that they at least strike the amendment which would allow the sign to remain illuminated.

Only one commenter, Doug Espelien, expressed the unpopular opinion that the commission should approve the changes. Espelien, who is also a member of the Gallatin County Planning Board and county soil and conservation district, offered his personal thoughts on the issue.

Espelien was on the planning board when the billboard issue came up 10 years ago, “And I remember it was a very contentious issue at that time as it is today,” he said. “This sign was put up legally… and let’s just imagine for a moment, the government, be it federal, state or county-level, having the right to come in and basically take your property without any kind of compensation.”

Gallatin Gateway resident Jerry Goldstein lives about 2,000 feet from the billboard. He addressed the commissioners, explaining that when it’s lit up, thanks to the geography of the area, the entire Beckman Flats area is illuminated along with it. “It is so intrusive, the light, the sign, that I hope that you guys decide, if this is a way out, if we have to pay to get this out, I recommend, and I hope you do too, that we do,” he said.

In the end, the commissioners came to the unpopular decision to strike the requirement for non-conforming signs in the North Gallatin Zoning District to reach compliance within 10 years of the district’s 2009 formation (known as an amortization clause), because, as Stacey and Commissioner Skinner explained, the sign was erected legally before the regulations were put into place. The sign will also  continue to be allowed to be illuminated, if advertisers choose to do so.

Commission Chair Skinner, who served as commissioner when the billboard went up on 2008, and for the creation of the district and the regulations that followed, offered his thoughts before the official vote.

“Citizen-initiated zoning is a gold standard here in Gallatin County,” said Commissioner Skinner, harking to earlier discussion at the meeting. “But this amortization clause is not one of those gold standards. Even at the time we all knew that we were on the edge of legality. I remember our attorney at the time made the statement, ‘I’m not sure how legal this is…’”

The owner of the sign, Utah-based Saunders Advertising, ultimately questioned that legality and eventually sued Gallatin County for its right to keep the billboard up through the 30-year lease that was signed back in 2008. It was that debatable legality and the costs that accompany lawsuits that were at the crux of attorney Stacey’s recommendation to amend the zoning requirements to effectively allow the only non-conforming sign in the Gallatin Canyon, the Saunders sign, to remain. Stacy noted that the changes would not allow any new billboards of that type to be added.

The contentious Beckman billboard was one of the first items newly-elected commissioner Scott MacFarlane was handed. He said he is a proponent of zoning, and this was a perfect example, in his opinion, of why sooner is better than later when it comes to creating zoning regulations. “I find it unfortunate that that billboard is there, I wish it wasn’t,” said MacFarlane. “But I also understand and realize that this amortization clause was an ill-advised and ineffective way of dealing with the problem of an individual right of use that we decided we didn’t like after it happened.”

With the decision made, the commission will open a 30-day protest period. That information will be published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle soon.

Interested in reading the zoning regulation, approved amendments, and public comment related to it? Visit gallatincomt.virtualtownhall.net, click on the Commission Calendar and select the 9 a.m. January 8 meeting. The meeting was also recorded and will be posted on the commission’s website soon.

Check out more Lookout coverage of the billboard here. 

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