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County opts not to freeze billboard permits

The moratorium/

was just a tease/

commissioners said "no"/

to a billboard freeze

(with apologies to Burma-Shave)

In a close shave for outdoor advertising companies, the Becker County Board on Tuesday decided against imposing a one-year moratorium on new permits for advertising billboards.

The moratorium would not have applied to business signs.

The board opted instead to form a committee to look at the county's current billboard zoning laws. Committee members will include commissioners Harry Salminen and Larry Knutson, representatives from area towns, and others.

The issue arose last month when Glenn Gifford, Sharon Josephson and Del Bergseth went to the county board meeting to push for the moratorium.

"We want to see what we can do to protect the beauty of Becker County before we get too much new outdoor advertising," Gifford said at that meeting.

"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 last month that there are nearly 100 billboards on highways leading into Detroit Lakes, and nearly 40 percent are touting 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 said.

On Tuesday, the commissioner's room was full, and a half-dozen people spoke on the issue prior to the vote.

Keith Franklin, who represented Franklin Outdoor Advertising, said nearly all his customers are local, and named a long list of Detroit Lakes businesses that depend on billboard advertising.

Franklin disagreed that 40 percent of billboards around Detroit Lakes are rented by out-of-town businesses.

"I won't say 100 percent, but ninety-nine percent of my customers are local," he said.

Billboards on Highway 10 have been coming down because of the Highway 10 realignment project, Franklin added. "It's forced us to go further out of town," he said.

Steve Anderson, who also works for Franklin Outdoor Advertising, said, "We've expanded our business in Becker County because we have customers asking for a chance to advertise. There are some new signs going up, but that's not a reason to panic... It's a supply and demand situation, we don't want to build signs if we can't sell them."

Jerry Schram of Erie Township spoke in favor of a freeze on new billboards.

"This is a moratorium, not a permanent prevention," he said. "Coming into town it looks a little cluttered, and we should strongly review what the policy of the county should be."

James Vareberg spoke against the moratorium.

"I was quite shocked," he said. "Some of you guys don't like signs. Well, as much as you don't like signs, I love them."

He said he's on the road a lot, and relies on billboards to find restaurants, motels and gas stations.

As for a lot of out-of-town businesses being advertised on local billboards, "I think that's a good thing," Vareberg said.

In Wahpeton recently, he saw a billboard for Foltz Buildings, Inc. of Detroit Lakes. He said he was glad to see a local company doing well and attracting business in other communities.

Some Detroit Lakes businesses rely on nearby billboards to serve as the next best thing to their own on-site signs, he said.

"As the city grows, we will need more signs," he added.

Sharon Josephson and Del Bergseth also spoke Tuesday, with both pointing out that, unlike some at the meeting, they had "no financial interests in billboards."

"I like billboards," Josephson said. "They have an important place in the community. But we need to step back and do some planning -- three every 100 yards is now allowed (by county ordinance). That is one of our major concerns."

She was reassured to learn from County Planning and Zoning Director Patty Johnson that state law limits billboards to one every 300 yards (outside of city limits), and that law takes precedence over weaker local laws.

"This County Board has always been a leader," Josephson said. "It was one of the first in Minnesota to have (county-wide) zoning... I'm asking you to again take a leadership role, so we will not have signs that will be there permanently. This is the time to do some planning, building on the good work you've already done."

Billboards are just one of a number of ways that businesses can advertise, Bergseth noted. But unlike radio and TV advertising, "you can't turn billboards off," he said. "It's under your control how many billboards I have to watch on the way to Fargo."

Becker County is a beautiful place, and a lot of people are drawn here because of that, he added. "I think a lot of times businesses, in their quest for competition, will destroy (the goose that laid) the golden eggs -- the reason people come to town anyway."

Detroit Lakes Attorney Patrick Kenney, who represents Newman Signs, said a moratorium could only be accomplished through an interim zoning ordinance, which under state law can be enacted only when it's a matter of "health, safety or general welfare," he said. "I question whether billboards qualify for that."

Billboards can't be plopped down just anywhere, he added. They must be on land zoned commercial or industrial, without any conditional use permits attached, or the state won't grant a permit.

Once a state permit is granted, the county issues a site permit to allow construction to begin.

State rules only apply to state highways, not county roads, which County Board Chairman Barry Nelson said is of greater concern to him than highway billboards.

"I'm not sure this warrants a moratorium, but we need to address it," Nelson said.

Knutson, who sits on the planning commission, spoke strongly against a moratorium.

"These regulations were put into effect by reasonable people -- a moratorium is a drastic response to a non-drastic situation," he said.

Commissioners John Bellefeuille and Karen Mulari agreed with Salminen's suggestion that a committee look into the issue, since there are also concerns with scrolling and other electronic billboards.

"It's throughout the state, it's not just Becker County that has this problem," said Johnson, who was charged by the board with selecting members of the committee.

As for those of you who weren't around from 1925 to 1963, when Burma-Shave signs dotted the countryside, look it up on the Web -- you young whippersnappers.

Billboards point to/

food and sleep/

but what to do/

about billboard creep?

Commissioners will have to decide. Stay tuned.