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City takes Mom & Pops to mat, gives mega firms pass on sign rules

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POSTED September 19, 2012 12:35 a.m.

Enforcement of municipal rules governing property - we are told - is complaint driven.

Once a complaint is made, we’re assured the city will check it out and if rules are broken they will take steps to make the part responsible for flaunting property maintenance rules comply.

But if you make a complaint about three “illegal signs” in Manteca city staff won’t do a darn thing.

It proves once and for all that if you have enough money you can ignore the rules.

Making it even more an affront against the small business owner is the fact the three “illegal signs” in question are on city property. Actually, they are on land that is part of the city’s park system.

The Manteca City Council on May 1, 2007 served notice to CBS Outdoor - a wholly -owned subsidiary of CBS - that it wanted three two-sided billboards on city property along the Moffat Boulevard leg of the Tidewater Bike Way removed.

The legal agreement between the city and the media company required the billboards to either be removed within 30 days of receiving notice from the city or - if not removed by them - the city could do so. It further states the company would have to reimburse the city for the costs of removal as long as it occurred one year after the 30-day period expired.

The original deal on the billboards were inked in 1991 when Union Pacific approved a lease with the National Advertising Company to allow three billboards to be constructed along Moffat Boulevard when it was still railroad property.

In 1997, the city acquired the land. Then on March 19, 2001 the City Council gave approval to issue notification of termination of the contract when it was originally thought the secondary wastewater line serving Eckert’s Cold Storage would go under the billboards. Another option for the line was discovered and the council’s directive was not implemented.

On April 26, 2007, the City Council reaffirmed its earlier decision to terminate the lease. That notice went to CBS Outdoor on May 1, 2007. CBS Outdoor - the third largest billboard company in the world with over $14 billion in annual revenue - had since acquired the signs.

The city does receive $2,070 a year in lease payments for the land where the billboards stand. It’s a significant bargain considering many home builders pay property owners $100 a month to place much smaller, semi-permanent signs hawking their homes.

So what prompted Manteca not to enforce a legally binding municipal law - in this case a contract - against CBS Outdoor? The company has simply threatened to sue them.

They are using a federal law passed to prevent local governments from forcing property owners to break contracts with billboard firms and remove such signs. Lawmakers wisely viewed such practice as taking away property value and rights. There’s only one slight problem. The city is the property owner and the threat of litigation by CBS is essentially taking away the collective property rights of the people of Manteca.

So what is more egregious? Is it a Moffat Boulevard small business owner who was forced to take down a sign on his fence or face a fine because it did not comply with city sign rules or a multi-billion corporation essentially taking public property in perpetuity simply because the city fears they will get sued by enforcing a legally binding contract between themselves as the property owner and the billboard firm?

Actually, five years back city staff was a bit blunter than that. They simply said they couldn’t fight a company that has deeper pockets than they do.

Gee, isn’t that exactly how more than a few small business owners feel about taking on the city over the code enforcement of sign rules?

There should not be two city standards when it comes to making businesses comply with sign rules - one for the multi-million and multi-billion dollar corporations and another for the Mom & Pop operations.



This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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