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Last billboard in Tahoe falls

Patrick McCartney

It took more than 13 years of legal wrangling, but the Tahoe Basin’s final billboard bit the dust recently.

Now, regulators will figure out how to remove the foundation.

The last sign, an advertisement on U.S. Highway 50 for Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, came down Feb. 25, nearly two months after the deadline set in a settlement agreement expired.

Two other billboards, also on Hwy. 50 near the Lake Tahoe Airport, were removed in December by the billboard companies that had erected them. According to Gordon “Gabby” Barrett, a senior planner with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the removal of the signs completed an important goal of improving the basin’s scenery.

“Symbolically, the billboards were very important,” Barrett said.

While the agency filed the lawsuit in 1983 that eventually resulted in the signs coming down, their removal fulfilled the goals of the TRPA’s 1972 sign ordinance, which banned off-premise signs.

The agency did not adopt a scenic standard for the basin until 1981, when most of the other billboards had already been removed, according to Barrett.

“The local governments had kept billboards under control” before then, he said. Douglas County prohibited billboards, and only a handful of the large outdoor signs existed in the basin’s other counties. Even at the peak, there were no more than 15 billboards in the basin, Barrett said.

In 1983, former TRPA counsel Gary Owen filed suit against Bruce Outdoor Advertising and National Advertising Co., and against the three owners on whose land the last three billboards were displayed. The city of South Lake Tahoe supported the lawsuit.

The defendants won the first round of the legal battle, when the Superior Court ruled in 1987 that the TRPA could not force the removal of the billboards.

But the agency persevered, filing an appeal in 1988 with the California Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court decision in 1991. According to the appeals court, the TRPA did not engage in a form of unconstitutional taking when it prohibited such signs, said Susan Scholley, a TRPA counsel.

The two sides prepared to return to court, but struck an out-of-court settlement in 1993 before the case went to trial. Under terms of the agreement, the companies and property owners would have three years to continue recovering the cost of their original investment before they would have to take the signs down.

“I am very pleased the property owners and companies complied with the settlement,” Scholley said. “I’m thrilled they didn’t have to be ordered.”

Scholley said she would appreciate the new views.

“What’s the poem?” she asked. “I think I’ll never see a billboard as lovely as a tree.”


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