Lamar Advertising Billboard

Johnson City has asked Lamar Advertising to remove a billboard it owns on city property by Sept. 1.

After giving the company until Sept. 1 to remove a billboard on city property, Johnson City is now taking legal action against owner Lamar Advertising.

On Thursday, Johnson City Commissioners authorized staff to file an unlawful detainer warrant for a billboard at the intersection of University Parkway and West State of Franklin Road, seeking a court order of eviction. Commissioners passed the item on their consent agenda.

City staff said multiple written requests have been made to Lamar Advertising to remove the structure, but it remains on city property without a city agreement to do so. No payments have been accepted by the city from Lamar Advertising, an outdoor advertising company that operates about 385,000 displays across the United States and Canada, according to its website.

“We have made multiple requests for them to vacate our property, and to date they have not” said City Manager Pete Peterson after the meeting. “So what the City Commission approved this evening authorizes us to make a pleading to the court to make a determination as to should they vacate our property and if so when.”

According to city officials, Hensley-Snyder Signs entered into a lease with East Tennessee State University in 1972 to operate the billboard at the intersection of University Parkway and West State of Franklin Road, paying $50 a year.

In 1978, city officials said, the city acquired the land and has continuously owned the property since that time. It did not enter into a contract with the company. At some point, Lamar Advertising stepped into the picture and continued to make payments to ETSU after the city bought the property.

After determining in 2017 that the city owned the property, Sandos said, Lamar Advertising eventually presented city staff with lease options for the billboard, options that Sandos said were lower than typical billboard lease agreements. To her knowledge, Sandos said, the city didn’t learn about the billboard’s presence on its property until 2019.

In March, the city asked Lamar to remove the billboard by June 1, which they extended to July 15 after the company requested more time.

In July, Sandos said, an attorney for Lamar told the city the billboard should be grandfathered in and that Johnson City would be exercising eminent domain if it removed the structure, which the attorney claimed would cost the city $281,000.

Sandos said that billboards in the city are grandfathered in if they appear on private property and predate changes to the zoning code. The city can’t enter into a new contract with Lamar Advertising because changes in ownership trigger the updated zoning rules. The city has never had a contract with the company for the billboard.

A spokesperson for Lamar Advertising declined comment Thursday, but the vice president and general manager for Lamar in the Tri-Cities, Jimmy Collins, showed up to the City Commission meeting to seek more information about the city’s action, referencing a request for comment sent by the Johnson City Press to the company’s corporate office.

“I thought we had a good relationship with the city,” Collins said. “We’re here to work with you. Not against you.”

He said the company sent a few proposals to the city on Aug. 22, which included leaving the billboard as is, converting to a digital billboard or purchasing the easement.

Peterson said the easement is not for sale and that the the issues would be best left to legal counsel.

“There are a number of legal issues that the attorneys are in total disagreement about,” Peterson said. “I think we’re just to the point where we need to get clear direction from a court that you all are there legally or you’re not there legally.”

Other business:

  • Commissioners passed on final reading amendments to the city’s alcohol ordinance that will allow distilleries in city limits and beer delivery.
  • Commissioners passed on first reading an ordinance that would allow first floor housing in certain circumstances in downtown’s central business district.
  • Commissioners passed on first reading annexation and zoning requests for two parcels in Boones Creek that would lay the groundwork for a 70-acre mixed use development called the Promenade.