by Jennifer Brock / Appen Newspapers / www.northfulton.com
December 13, 2007
Billboards may be sprouting up left and right in North Fulton after Fulton County narrowly agreed last week to allow 74 soaring signs -- but the cities are vowing keep the outdoor advertisements from going up.
Fulton County Board of Commissioners voted 4-3 to approve a proposal that would issue sign permits for 31 billboards in Johns Creek, 15 in Milton, 23 in Sandy Springs, three in Alpharetta and two in south Fulton at its meeting Dec. 5.The say they did so because they faced a great likelihood of paying damages of $6 million or more, perhaps a lot more.The history of billboards in the county dates back to 2005, when the Alpharetta-based outdoor advertising company Galberaith and Associates, along with others, challenged the county's sign ordinance in court. Georgia Supreme Court found portions of the county's ordinance unconstitutional earlier this year.Mediation between the county and companies to settle the case led to the proposal, which would require the county to issue backdated permits instead of paying damages.
The county no longer has authority to issue permits within the cities, so the permits would be backdated to the date the companies applied for them, before Milton, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs were incorporated."[The billboard companies] were just saying, 'we won't go after you period, and we will indemnify you against anybody else suing you on this issue, if you will issue backdated permits,'" said Commissioner Lynne Riley.
County Attorney Gerry Clark recommended approval of the proposal.For Fulton County, it makes economic sense [to approve it]," he said.Commission chairman John Eaves agreed with Clark, saying the county will see significant savings if it would just issue the permits.But the county will not issue the permits unless the court approves the proposal."I will not ask my constituents to support something that we don't yet know is legal," said Riley.After the meeting, Riley said that the city attorney could not assure her that backdated permits were supported by law, so there was no way she was going to support it.
Further, Clark told commissioners if the county had declined the deal and companies were awarded damages by the court, the county would have the option to appeal."What happened yesterday touches off an incredible amount of litigation, all of which I feel is completely unnecessary because the county could have said, 'Thanks, but no thanks' and then let a court tell us if this is something we have to do," Riley said.Commissioners Emma Darnell, Robb Pitts and Lynne Riley voted to deny the proposal, while commissioners Eaves, Nancy Boxill, Bill Edwards and Tom Lowe voted to approve the measure."I am very disappointed that my colleagues thought it was the most responsible thing to do," Riley said.
However, Lowe said the court has told the county some of its attempts to block billboards was not legal and noted the court told the county to make a deal."This was a court-ordered mediation. The meaning was clear. We were going to lose, the court told us so. If we did not make this agreement, then our best legal advice was that we faced paying damages of $6 million. But I think that was a very conservative figure. I think it would have been more like $20 million."There are nine companies involved in the litigation, and to think that their damages if upheld would be less than $1 million apiece would not be likely, he said."To me, [the decision] was a no-brainer from a fiscal point of view. Politically, it is always easier to give folks what they want, but I couldn't in good conscience do it," Lowe said.Asked if he say any similarity in this case and the library case in which eight women accused the county of discrimination and won what eventually was an $18 million judgement, Lowe said yes. He pointed out that before the trial the case could have been settled for $600,000, and even after the judgment came in could have been settled for a third of the final judgment. But the majority of the commissioners insisted on appealing to the Supreme Court.
After hearing the vote, Johns Creek immediately filed a motion to intervene in the case. According to the city, only Johns Creek has the power to issue sign permits within its borders.The city also filed the motion because the agreement between Fulton County and the billboard companies "compromises the city's rights because it contains illegal provisions that both parties are asking the judge to give legal status."
Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said Fulton County has no right to approve the permits within the city's jurisdiction."Once again, a majority of Fulton County commissioners chose to throw their citizens to the wolves and abdicate their responsibility to preserve the community's quality of life by failing to deal with their past mistakes," said Bodker.Bodker said the issue could have been avoided if the commissioners made the necessary changes to the county's sign ordinance that would render it constitutional."Instead, they chose to sit on their hands," said Bodker.
"Now, as they've done with so many other issues, they have tossed this into our [city's] lap and said 'you deal with it."Milton Interim City Manager Chris Lagerbloom said Milton officials were not surprised by the Fulton County Commission's move, which was likened to "throwing the North Fulton cities under the bus" by some at City Hall."We anticipated it," he said. "And I've already asked the city attorney to file the motion to intervene."City Attorney Mark Scott said Milton's strategy to combat the billboard vote was to file a three-step motion. First, a temporary restraining order that could keep the billboards out until a permanent judgment is rendered. Second, a permanent injunction against the billboard permits. Third, a declaratory judgment against the vote that would, Scott hopes, result in a judge ruling Fulton County doesn't have the power to give sign permits in the city limits of Milton. The city attorney said this case with Fulton County is interesting in that it doesn't necessarily challenge the constitutionality of an existing ordinance, as is the norm with billboard court cases."This is challenging Fulton County's ability to issue permits retroactively," he said.And depending on the outcome, Scott said Milton residents could wake up one day and find 672-square-foot billboards up and down Ga. 9. This is in a town where the sign ordinance limits maximum sign size at 120 square feet."Worst case scenario is that the companies get the permits and erect the signs immediately," he said. "Then we have to approach it from a code enforcement perspective. That's a nightmare."