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Local persuades commission to allow digital billboard

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A local businessman has obtained approval from a city commission to construct a 300-square-foot digital billboard on property he owns at 2415 N. Main St. City staff opposed his request because he intends to use the sign to advertise for businesses and organizations not located on the property. Staff say the new sign would violate current city codes because it would be within 1,000 feet of another off-premise sign, a large billboard. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

A local businessman who wants to place a large electronic billboard on a piece of property he owns has received the approval of a City of Roswell commission, although city staff have said his plans run counter to current regulations.

Tyler Carter persuaded a majority of the Planning and Zoning Commission to grant him a variance because the current codes that would bar his digital billboard represent “content regulation.”

“There is not an issue from my understanding with the sign itself, with the size or the height,” said Carter. “It’s only when you get to the content display itself that it falls within new off-premise advertising rules, and to me that is more regulated content.”

The commission voted Tuesday night six to one to approve Carter’s application for a variance, with Chair Ralph Brown casting the dissenting vote.

The commission’s vote gives Carter permission to proceed with efforts to construct a 12-foot by 25-foot digital sign at 2415 N. Main Street near the intersection of Country Club Road. The property is owned by Carter’s ERMB Investments LLC and is occupied by a small business center with three tenants.

The vote ran against the recommendation of city staff, including City Engineer and Planning Director Louis Najar and Planning Manager Bill Morris, who said the city’s current codes do not permit a sign that would advertise for off-premises businesses under the conditions represented by Carter’s request.

Morris has said that the city will not appeal the commission’s decision. But Carter still must obtain approval from the New Mexico Department of Transportation as part of the process of obtaining a building permit because the sign would be located on Main Street, which is also a state highway.

Carter said he plans to use the sign to not only advertise for tenants at the North Main property, which city staff is permitted by the code, but for the Carters’ five businesses at different locations and, perhaps, for community organizations. He described himself as pro-Roswell and said he and his wife own five businesses and have employed up to 50 part-time and full-time workers during the past five years.

“I am asking for a variance, but I don’t think it is an exception that hasn’t already been made,” Carter said. “In addition, I would like to argue that the variances that have been made are for people who don’t even live here. …This is part of my growth. I need this to continue doing what I am doing.”

But Najar and Morris said that advertising for entities not located on the property is what causes the issue.

They say that current code, adopted about four years ago, does not allow an off-premise advertising sign within 1,000 feet of another off-premise sign. Carter’s proposed sign, they said, would be within 350 feet of another off-premise sign. A large billboard is located a bit south of the proposed sign location.

Morris called the code governing billboards and business signs the “proverbial third rail” for city planners and commissioners.

“Most local governments try to regulate large billboards signs, off-premises signs. That is a constant battle that goes on. It has been to the Supreme Court numerous times, what can and can’t be done,” Morris told commissioners.

Morris said that he was surprised upon coming to Roswell by the number of billboards within the city limit and said they now number 77. He explained that having too many billboards in one area can distract and confuse drivers as well as run counter to what cities try to do to create attractive urban designs.

“Most communities do their best to keep them out. We have a code that says you can do it, but here are the limitations,” Morris said. “This application is patently wrong compared to what is in the code today.”

Morris said that he recognized that the sign would be an “economic booster” for Carter, but both he and Najar expressed the need to uphold the intent of the code that had been adopted by governing bodies.

“The sign code has been contentious from the beginning,” said Najar. “What we are down to is whether it is premise, on-site or off-site premise. We don’t have to agree with the rules, but it is the job of staff to enforce the rules. And I am standing with Planning for denial.”

Commissioner Toby Gross said that he considered the matter a state issue because it regulates advertising on state highways, but commissioners Riley Armstrong and Kent Taylor said they thought the real problem lies with the way the city code is written.

“My problem with this, if it is a problem, if it is a deterrence to traffic or the community if he advertises other businesses, then it is a deterrence if he advertises only his own business. It is still flashing lights,” said Taylor. “So I think the problem is with the language that says you can do this but you can’t do that. It is still the same sign with flashing lights.”

Carter noted after the meeting that the deal is not done yet, that he still must have the sign designed and approved for a permit before he makes any plans to construct the sign.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.