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Melissa Crowe
The Advocate
Originally published May 19, 2012 at 10:36 p.m., updated May 20, 2012 at 12:12 a.m.

Victoria's historic downtown districts are considered by many to be sacrosanct.

Billboards popping up in and around the Original Townsite, Victoria Heights and Nine Rivers, presented the city with a unique issue of balancing homeowners' and business owners' property rights while preserving the historic aesthetics.

The nine-person city planning commission recently voted to recommend that the City Council ban billboards in the three districts.

Planning Services Director Jared Mayfield said the issue of prohibiting billboards in those districts came from the planning commission earlier this year as a way to protect the city's history.

However, a permit granted to Middleton Outdoor Advertising on March 19 for a 180-square-feet, 25-feet-tall electronic billboard at the Five Points intersection, just northwest of downtown, has a group of residents at odds.

John Kaselus, president of Victoria Preservation Inc., is one of the opponents to billboards in historic districts. He lives in the city's Original Townsite, about two blocks from Five Points.

"People are concerned that it could affect home values," he said. "Nobody wants to live next to a flashing sign."

Preserving the aesthetic of the city's historic districts will enhance tourism, he said.

"Imagine a big billboard in front of the Alamo," he said. "It just wouldn't fit."

Gary Middleton, who owns the sign at Five Points, said because of the nature of the city's restrictive billboard ordinance, that site was one of seven his company was able to get permitted.

Three of his six signs currently being built are in historic districts.

"The locations that we acquired, we acquired before we even heard about them wanting to ban the billboards in historic districts," he said. "It just happened to work out that way."

He understands the city's perspective, but said it may not necessarily be shared by all Victorians.

"The handwriting was on the wall," Middleton said. "I think they (the commission) had their minds made up and that's fine. I respect that."

Because he has his permits, his signs would be grandfathered in and not affected by any ordinance change.

Commission Chairwoman Donna Rodriguez said they studied seven Texas cities, including Brenham, Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, and how they approached the issue.

Some cities put "cap and trades" on billboards: To put up a new sign, an old one has to come down. Others banned them completely.

Rodriguez said she hopes the city heeds their ban recommendation.

Of the city's 152 billboards, about 16 are in or around historic districts.

Since February, businesses looking to nab a sign permit have rushed to the city with applications.

The city approved six permits, which includes two in the Original Townsite and one in Victoria Heights, since the issue came up. Before the planning commission meeting Thursday, one business submitted seven applications for permits in areas outside historic districts.

"That's a huge jump," Mayfield said. "To get 10 percent more in a short period of time, that's a big increase."

Chris Stokes, of Lamar Advertising in Austin, said the business wants to be a good neighbor.

"We support the ban in the historic district, and we would support limiting no more billboards being built in Victoria unless one of equal size comes down," he said.

Councilman Tom Halepaska said he supports imposing a 30- to 90-day moratorium on billboard permits to avoid an "Oklahoma Land Rush" situation until the Council decides what to do.

"There are cultural things that you want to retain" downtown, Halepaska said. "There's a piece of the population that loves those aesthetics, they're quaint and different."

Those are the people who want to preserve the town's historical value, he said.

"The people who live in the area and the people who cherish these things want to protect that," he said. "They perceive billboards as less than wonderful things to have. If they could slow down the process, they would be happier."

If the council voted to pass an ordinance on billboards, there would be a time period for businesses to recoup their investments on those advertisements, he said.

Mayor Will Armstrong said he would support the commission.

"I'm going to lead heavily on the planning commission's recommendation," he said

While the commission voted 9-0 to recommend the ordinance change, some members expressed concern for businesses.

Richard Janecka, a planning commissioner and owner of a local sign business, said definitions could create "a slippery slope" for other issues.

"People have to generate sales for these types of businesses," he said. "They have to have signs to bring people in."

However, he said the electronic billboard at the Five Points intersection "seems like a bad choice, safety wise" because that intersection is already prone to accidents.

Louise Hull Patillo, a commission member, called the issue critical. She, too, hopes the council will approve a moratorium on permits.

She questioned the legality of the electronic sign at the Five Points intersection because of its proximity to homes and streets.

City staff members said the sign received a clean permit.

City regulations require billboards to be a minimum of 500 feet apart and 100 feet from the nearest home.

Because the Five Points sign is on Moody Street, across the street from an existing billboard on North Street, the distance rule does not apply.

The sign is about 300 feet from the existing billboard, and about 122 feet from the nearest home.

"It's tight, but that's why it had to get moved around on that commercial property," Mayfield said.

Middleton said his sign at Five Points already has interest from several downtown businesses.

"It's affordable enough for them to advertise the entertainment and interest that's going on downtown," he said.

As a former Victoria mayor, Middleton said he wants to help the city.

That can include anything from using the digital billboard to advertise downtown nightlife and open rental space, to safety and amber alerts.

"I'm not mad at anybody in Victoria," Middleton said. "The locations we had, that we had already acquired, just happened to fall within those districts."

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