After months of back and forth, Lamar Advertising has agreed to take down a billboard located on city property by July 31.
Two months after giving staff permission to seek a court order of eviction against the outdoor advertising company, Johnson City commissioners approved on Nov. 19 a settlement with Lamar Advertising in which the company agreed to remove the structure, which sits at the busy intersection of West State of Franklin Road and University Parkway.
Although an attorney for Lamar Advertising originally claimed the removal could constitute eminent domain, City Attorney Sunny Sandos said Johnson City won’t have to compensate the company for the value of the property, which the company claimed was $281,112.
Lamar Advertising declined to comment.
The dispute has its roots in 1972, when Hensley-Snyder Signs Inc. entered into a lease agreement with East Tennessee State University to operate a billboard on the property, agreeing to pay the university $50 a year. Lamar Advertising is the successor on that lease.
In 1978, the city acquired the land from the state of Tennessee. Since that time, Sandos said in March, Lamar Advertising has neglected to make any payments to the city.
“Additionally, Lamar failed for approximately 41 years to attempt to cure its deficiency, instead profiting from the billboard without providing any compensation to the city for Lamar’s use of city-owned property,” Sandos wrote to company representatives on March 18.
Instead, Sandos said Lamar Advertising continued to pay ETSU $50 a year for almost four decades without attempting to confirm proper ownership.
Wendi Loup, the assistant general counsel for Lamar Advertising, responded to Sandos on July 9, stating that Lamar had operated the billboard at that location for more than 48 years and had paid the “property owner of record” through May 2017.
“Lamar has no active duty to research the property records as the lease runs with the land,” Loup wrote. Sandos later said that the argument that the lease runs with the land isn’t actually indicated in Lamar’s original agreement with ETSU.
“It does raise the question why the city, with constructive notice of Lamar’s billboard, failed to contact Lamar since acquiring the property in 1978,” Loup continued.
Stating that the billboard predates the city’s zoning code and is grandfathered in, Loup claimed no permit was required for the use of the land.
Loup said the company would prefer to enter into a lease with the city, and if officials opted to remove the structure, the city would need to pay Lamar $281,112, which Loup said was the fair market value for the condemnation of the property.
In 2015, ETSU officials notified Lamar that the university would be canceling the lease agreement for the property starting on Dec. 31 of that year.
In a reply to Loup, Sandos claims that Lamar actually refused at that time to remove its billboard because it knew ETSU was not the property owner of record.
“Yet, Lamar representatives have informed the city that it continued for another two years (through 2017) to issue payments to ETSU before ‘learning of the new property owner,’” Sandos said. “The question begs, when exactly is the honest answer to when Lamar learned of the actual property owner?”
Loup responded that Lamar learned the billboard was on city property in 2017, adding that the letter from ETSU didn’t indicate a change in ownership. She said the company put payments on hold when it learned that the property didn’t belong to ETSU.
“Lamar does not dispute that the city has a right to require Lamar to remove its billboard,” Loup wrote on July 27. “We do dispute that the city may refuse to compensate Lamar for the compelled removal of its billboard.”
Sandos has said 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 contract with Lamar because changes in ownership trigger updated zoning rules. Johnson City has never had a contract with the company for the use of the land.
“Any change in a sign associated with a change in ownership or tenancy shall in all cases require a permit,” Sandos wrote in March, adding that the city wasn’t issuing new permits in the billboard’s current location as part of its comprehensive plan.