Do billboards ruin a road’s beauty?
That point of debate was at the heart of a feisty City Council discussion this week with an odd twist — the Indian Creek Nature Center, champion of the great outdoors, was the one advocating for the billboard.
“Signs are not inherently evil,” Don Johnson, a Cedar Rapids attorney and president of the Nature Center’s board of directors, told the council. Many local businesses, he added, like advertising on billboards.
The Nature Center got its way on a 5-3 council vote, a decision that positions the center to garner a one-time lease fee estimated at $200,000 for a 672-square-foot billboard, its top 50 feet off the ground, at a Nature Center-owned spot on Highway 100 east of First Avenue East and next to the Slumberland furniture store.
Mayor Ron Corbett was on the short end of the council vote, but not before he noted that only one billboard, which was recently erected on Marion’s side of Highway 100, now mars what he said is otherwise a still-scenic drive from First Avenue East east to Highway 13.
Corbett said his “hope” was that the coming seven-mile extension of Highway 100 west of Edgewood Road NE would not be “littered” with billboards once it is built, a result to which he suggested a billboard on the Nature Center’s property will help bring about on the existing stretch of Highway 100 east of First Avenue East.
At some expense, the mayor noted, the City Council has spent city tax dollars to remove utility poles and move utility lines underground to “clean up the skies,” which the city has done as part of a major road reconstruction project on First Avenue East and Highway 100 not far from the Nature Center property.
But in the end, a consensus of council members agreed that the city should look at its existing billboard ordinance, but the majority said the council had to live with the ordinance that is in place.
The billboard matter is a small piece of larger internal debate at the non-profit Nature Center on how best to bolster its endowment to keep the center’s operation functioning well into the future.
This led to the Nature Center’s decision to try to sell six to eight acres of 35 acres of donated land along busy Highway 100 — some distance from the center’s existing operation — for commercial development, the proceeds from which, perhaps as much as $2.5 million, would go into the center’s endowment.
In order to sell the land, the Nature Center needed City Hall permission to rezone the property it intended to sell from a residential zoning classification to a commercial one.
Rich Patterson, the Nature Center’s director, has acknowledged that commercial development on part of the donated land will require a developer to take down a number of trees, though Patterson this week repeated that the trees had “low ecological value” because many of them were younger trees that had overgrown what had been a nine-hole golf course on the site.
The city has different commercial zoning categories, but the Nature Center asked for a C-3 commercial classification, which allows more kinds of development than a more-restrictive C-2 commercial classification such as the classification that the Slumberland store next to the Nature Center property has had. Both sites now have C-3 as a result of the council’s 5-3 vote this week.
A C-3 classification also makes it significantly easier to place the largest billboard allowed under the city ordinance on the property. The C-2 classification requires special approval of a conditional-use permit for billboard of half the size as billboards permitted in the C-3 zoning classification. And the city’s Board of Adjustment has been skittish about granting such special approvals.
At one point in this week’s debate, Corbett asked City Manager Jeff Pomeranz, who managed the Des Moines suburb of West Des Moines for 12 years before taking the Cedar Rapids job two years ago, what he thought about billboards.
Pomeranz said Cedar Rapids needed to control the number of signs, and he said West Des Moines made a “deliberate attempt” to do so. Every opening the city had to eliminate a billboard the city did, he said.
The Nature Center’s Patterson has said that the center is working with Steve Allsop, owner of MediaQuest Outdoor, on a sale of a spot for a billboard. Allsop’s company owns the digital billboard near the Menard’s property in Marion on Highway 100 east of the Nature Center’s property.
In a news story in June, Allsop said the city of Cedar Rapids’ current sign ordinance — which requires billboards to be 1,000 feet from one another and certain distances from residential property among other restrictions — has left few places in the city for new billboards.
In the June story, too, Tom Treharne, Marion’s director of planning and development, said Marion’s updated billboard ordinance limits new signs in Marion to three, four-lane highways, Highway 100, Highway 13, and Highway 151 east of Highway 13.
“Billboards are not something that from a planning perspective we’re really excited to see, to be brutally honest,” Treharne said then.
In making its case for rezoning, the Nature Center’s Patterson emphasized that the center was moving the majority of its 35 donated acres along Highway 100 into a permanent conservation easement so it can’t be redeveloped. He also said the Nature Center will require the buyer of the land to allow an entry point for a trail in the parking lot of the commercial building that eventually goes up on the land. Patterson said the trail will lead to the rest of the wooded property and hopefully connect to other trails nearby.
At one point in its attempt to sell a part of the Highway 100 property, the Hobby Lobby store chain had been a potential buyer in a deal that did not progress, Patterson has said.
In this week’s council vote, council members Pat Shey, Ann Poe, Don Karr, Chuck Swore and Kris Gulick sided with the Nature Center, while Corbett and council members Monica Vernon and Justin Shields voted against the rezoning provision, largely because of the billboard.
Swore complimented the Nature Center for selling off some property and for securing additional revenue from the billboard as a way to help the non-profit remain financially healthy into the future.