THE Quincy City Council would be wise to reverse a decision that ignores current zoning regulations and could open the door for a special permit to be issued so new nonconforming billboards can be built in the 800 block of North 24th Street.
Nine aldermen voted last Tuesday night to not concur with a unanimous recommendation by the Quincy Plan Commission to deny the request by Freiburg Inc., to install new nonconforming billboards at 831 N. 24th, should the existing billboards ever be removed.
City planners and the Plan Commission correctly recommended denial because the request is strictly prohibited by the ordinance unanimously adopted by the City Council in 2005 regulating the size and placement of billboards in Quincy.
Should aldermen move forward now and arbitrarily choose not to enforce an existing ordinance, it would set a troubling precedent that would effectively erode its intent and hamper future city enforcement without risking legal challenges.
Clearly, selective enforcement of any zoning regulation is bad policy and should be avoided.
At issue is the double-stacked billboards sitting on property owned by Freiburg and leased to Key Outdoor Inc., which owns the billboards. Freiburg and Key have not been able to agree on a new lease, and Key plans to take down the billboards if a new deal is not reached.
They are among 24 nonconforming billboards allowed to remain in place when the current ordinance was enacted. Once removed, however, these billboards cannot be replaced because they do not meet current standards. Two other nonconforming billboards in the city were not allowed to be rebuilt once taken down.
The ordinance stipulates, among other things, that billboards cannot be placed within 500 feet of residential properties, public buildings or institutions such as churches or cemeteries.
The billboards on North 24th Street are within 500 feet of residential property and face the Tabernacle Baptist Church across the street.
The City Council unanimously enacted the ordinance tightening restrictions on billboards 12 years ago in response to a series of requests from three outdoor advertising companies that would have nearly doubled the number of signs in the city, primarily along main commercial streets.
With residents voicing concerns about the visual clutter that would be created by as many 20 billboards per mile in commercial and industrial areas, which standards then in place would have allowed, Alderman Mike Rein, R-5, suggested a 90-day moratorium on permits so that city officials could study the issue.
The council sent the matter to the Plan Commission, which drafted its proposal featuring more stringent requirements after hearing from a 13-member advisory committee that included aldermen and representatives of the billboard industry, neighborhoods and businesses. The council later adopted the proposal.
The regulations have been considered fair to the billboard industry; there are 49 billboards in Quincy, a high number for a city our size. The regulations also serve the larger interest of the community by fostering an aesthetically pleasing environment.
Stalled negotiations between two businesses keenly aware of the rules is no reason for the city to consider disregarding them.
Should aldermen and city planners at some point unquestionably conclude that extensive evidence supports that this or any other zoning ordinance is out of date and no longer serves the community's best interests, they should follow the example set in 2005 and thoughtfully work to make appropriate changes, rather than do so capriciously.