Signs of conflict

Photo By AMY BECK Digital billboards are the new big thing in the outdoor advertising industry, but opponents of billboards say Reno law forbids them.

Since Renoites voted in 2000 to clamp a lid on new billboards, billboard opponents have been ever vigilant against city efforts to get around that limit.

Lately, the city has been sniffing around the limit, raising the hackles of Scenic Nevada, the watchdog group. In 2009, the city had taken a look at doing something to aid billboard companies that wanted to erect electronic or digital billboards. Then it backed off for more than a year. A July 27 information meeting on digital billboards of the Reno Planning Commission was scheduled last month but then cancelled after conflicting meeting notices were issued to the public. The purpose of the meeting was both to put information out to the public and also to come up with language for the city’s billboard ordinance that relates to the new electronic billboards, something Scenic Nevada said is unnecessary since no new billboards are allowed in the city.

Scenic Nevada had commissioned an opinion survey for release the day of that aborted meeting. The poll, commissioned from the Portland firm M.J. Ross Group, asked Reno residents, “Do you think the city of Reno should change the law and allow digital billboards within the Reno city limits?” It found that of 600 Reno residents surveyed, 55 percent said no, and 28 percent said yes. The remaining 17 percent were undecided. The survey seemed to show that little has changed since the 2000 vote. Within the 4 percent error margin, residents appear to be about as opposed to digital billboards as they were to traditional billboards, which 57 percent of them wanted limited in the 2000 election.

Scenic Nevada spokesperson Doug Smith said he was told the planning commission meeting would be rescheduled for late August, but it never was. Now he’s hearing late September.

“In the latter part of September, there’s supposed to be another meeting of what you call a billboard workshop,” Smith said.

For legal purposes, a billboard is generally defined as a sign that advertises goods or services that are not available on the property where the sign is located.

In 2000, acting on an initiative petition successfully circulated by Citizens For a Scenic Reno (now called Scenic Nevada), Reno residents voted to cap the number of billboards in the city at 278. Reno billboard companies responded to the initiative petition by circulating a competing petition to put their own measure on the ballot, but were unable to get the necessary signatures.

After the election, Eller Media Co. (formerly Donrey Outdoor Advertising) sued to overturn the new ordinance but was unsuccessful.

The ballot measure did not provide exceptions for digital billboards, which were not something that was unforeseen at the time of the 2000 vote. There were already such billboards in place in the valley, though they were on-premise, such as the John Ascuaga’s Nugget billboard that overhangs Interstate 80.

Smith said the ballot measure means that no digital billboards are allowed in the city at all. The 2000 ballot measure, he said, bans new off-premise billboards. Since no digital off-premise billboards were in place in the city in 2000, putting any up would violate the no-new-billboards language of the law. “We consider a digital billboard a new billboard,” he said.

Photo By Dennis Myers Scenic Nevada’s Doug Smith said any digital billboard is by definition a new billboard—and thus illegal.

“I assume that’s their interpretation,” said City Councilmember Dwight Dortch. But he said the city attorney has recommended the city adopt new language covering the new technology of electronic billboards.

“I think it needs to go to the planning commission for new language,” Dortch said.

But if no digital billboards are allowed in the city by the voter-approved ordinance, why is the language covering them needed?

“Because our attorney told us,” Dortch said.

“He’s saying they have the right to have digital billboards,” Smith said of Dortch. “We’re saying they don’t.”

“We need additional language to accommodate the technology,” Dortch said. “Again, I think there is new technology out there, and we don’t have language to accommodate it.”

“The issue is whether additional billboards should be allowed,” Smith said. “Of course, Scenic Nevada’s position is that we’re sticking with our initiative petition, which basically said, no new billboards.”

Constitutional issue

Meanwhile, a side drama over Reno billboards was settled by a federal judge.

In June, Jeffrey Herson sued the city to try to overturn the billboard limits on grounds that his First and 14th Amendment rights are violated by the billboard cap. He said he wanted to build a series of billboards, including some calling for the recall of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. It is not known what messsages the non-Reid billboards would have carried, which could have been an important point of contention, because the courts have often treated commerce and politics differently in First Amendment litigation.

In fact, although Nevada has a recall law, it is generally believed that it does not apply to U.S. representatives and senators and that there is no way to recall a member of Congress except by defeating him or her for reelection. In 1979, Nevada’s attorney general advised the secretary of state not to accept any recall petitions against members of Congress. In U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, the U.S. Supreme Court made a reference to “a power of recall, which the Framers denied to the States when they specified the terms of Members of Congress.”

At any rate, U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks last week threw the case out of court on technical grounds, saying Herson had not done things by the numbers. Because Herson never actually applied to the city for billboard permits, Hicks said, there was no case for him to rule on, and Herson had no standing in court. Herson, Hicks found, cannot “show that he has suffered any injury in fact or that any asserted injury is fairly traceable to the actions of the city.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.