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County looks at 1-year billboard moratorium

Becker County is considering following the lead of Detroit Lakes and declaring a one-year moratorium on new advertising billboards.

Business signs would not be affected.

The Detroit Lakes City Council has already heard the first of two readings required to pass the moratorium.

And the city council has directed city staff not to grant any new billboard permits until it makes a final decision on the moratorium, according to three people who came to the county board meeting Tuesday to push for the moratorium -- Glenn Gifford, Sharon Josephson and Del Bergseth.

"We wanted to approach the county with an idea the city has taken up -- a moratorium on new billboard advertising in the county," Gifford told commissioners. "We want to see what we can do to protect the beauty of Becker County before we get too much new outdoor advertising.

"We've all seen what's happening on Highway 59 South, and what's happening west of the city and east of the city," he added.

Bergseth said there are nearly 100 billboards on highways leading into Detroit Lakes, and nearly 40 percent are advertising out-of-town businesses. That's enough billboards to handle advertising for local businesses that need them, at least for a year, until the county can settle on an outdoor advertising policy, he argued.

Billboards that are there now "are going to be there in 100 years," he added. "You (county government) can't legally take them down once they're up, that's our understanding."

Detroit Lakes and Becker County are growing, Gifford said. "We have an opportunity to take a step back, look around, and see where we want these signs to be."

The moratorium would apply only to the big billboards, or "non-premise advertising," not to business signs, he stressed.

"The sign companies are doing what they are supposed to do," Gifford said. "Once you set the zoning, they can operate under whatever rules you lay out for them. If there are no rules, it's anything goes."

The state has minimal requirements for issuing billboard permits, and if city and county standards are not tougher, companies will be free to put up billboards as they have been around the Detroit Lakes area, Gifford said.

The exception is "scenic highways" like Highway 34, a designation that brings state protection, Josephson said.

As far as other highways go, "the state in its own statutes says it will defer to the county or city, whichever one is more restrictive, she added.

"We're here to raise the issue, to raise the consciousness of it," Gifford said. "This isn't about banning them, it's about stepping back and considering what we want this county to look like."

"To businesses that say they need these signs, we figure 100 is enough," Bergseth added.

Commissioner Harry Salminen, who has long professed a dislike for too many billboards, made a motion to send the proposal to the planning and zoning commission for a recommendation.

But the three urged the board to put an immediate administrative freeze on granting permits for new billboards.

"It's right now that most of these permits are being granted," Josephson said. "As soon as folks find out about this thing, they will come in with a flurry of permit (applications)."

Commissioner Larry Knutson reminded commissioners they had only heard one side of the issue, and urged the board to hold a public meeting on the proposal before taking any action.

"A public hearing is the way to do it if you're considering a moratorium," he said.

After some discussion, Salminen withdrew his motion and made a new one -- to hold a public hearing at the next county board meeting on the proposed one-year moratorium on off-premise billboards.

But the board wouldn't go along with an immediate administrative freeze on granting new permits.

"If you have 10 more permits between now and then...?" asked Gifford.

"They'll fly," finished Salminen.

"That is not a moratorium," argued Jospehson. "That is an administrative action directing (county staff) not to accept permits."

Nonetheless, the board declined to follow the suggestion, and instead voted to hold a public hearing on the proposal at its next regular meeting April 10.