It appears the latest battle royale over billboards in Burnsville is just beginning.
On Tuesday night, City Hall was the scene of a heated discussion in which Mayor Elizabeth Kautz described a proposed change to the City Code as an attempt to turn Burnsville into a "billboard sign farm." Council Member Dan Kealey demanded that she retract her statement.
She did not. And after two hours, the council was still at a stalemate.
The issue of billboards came to the fore last month, when council members were approached by Clear Channel, which asked them to reconsider the use of large LED signs within city limits.
Traditionally, the city has taken a hard line against roadside signage. The current ordinance stipulates that all existing billboards be gradually phased out. Billboards are grandfathered in until the land is developed or redeveloped, at which point they are "retired."
The ordinance also prohibits owners from expanding or enhancing their existing signs, a clause that includes the addition of "any changeable copy technology" like an LED display.
The policy has succeeded in pruning billboards from Burnsville's landscape. In 1988, there were 23 billboards around the city. By 2008, only nine still stood, four of which are owned by Clear Channel.
On Tuesday, Clear Channel representative Matthew Weiland reiterated the company's argument: If the city allowed placement of a new LED billboard, Clear Channel would agree to take one of its existing billboards down so that there would be no net increase in the number of signs gracing Burnsville's roadways.
Then Weiland dropped the hook. If the city changed its ordinance, he said, the company would be willing to give the city up to five hours of ad space on the signs per month. The space could be used for public service announcements and Amber Alerts, but also for advertising local festivals and city facilities like the Burnsville Performing Arts Center, which has struggled financially since it opened in 2009.
Once again, council members Dan Kealey, Dan Gustafson and Bill Coughlin voiced support.
"That's a bonus. It's not the reason we're changing it, but it's a bonus," said Gustafson, a supporter of the BPAC and Art and All That Jazz, an annual festival that came close to cancellation last year after key sponsors pulled out.
Eventually, it emerged that Kealey, Gustafson and Coughlin had even more sweeping changes in mind, including the removal of the city's "retirement" clause.
City Manager Craig Ebeling was the first to express misgivings about the idea of allowing cash or in-kind benefits to influence the city's broader zoning policy.
"A quid pro quo for a zoning decision does not seem to me in keeping with how we've done things in the past," Ebeling said.
Council Member Mary Sherry agreed.
"I'm very, very uncomfortable on doing that. My sense is that it is giving something to get something," Sherry said. "To me, that's troubling from an ethical point of view."
Ethical considerations were not the only point of contention. Sherry and members of the public speaking at the meeting argued that the signs were ugly and even a potential hazard to drivers, a claim that Kealey vehemently denied.
"This is just a fear that we all have," Kealey said. "There isn't any data to support that. You just has to drive through Las Vegas to know that the eight-second switch of an LED sign is nothing compared to all the lights blinking and flashing."
He added that the view of the Minnesota River, one of Burnsville's most majestic attributes, would be no more obstructed than it is now.
Kealey's opposition was unmoved by this line of reasoning. Mary Lou Foster, a Burnsville resident, said many of her visitors from out of town had commented on how unattractive Burnsville's Interstate 35 corridor is already. The entry into the city left a bad impression, she said.
"We're not Las Vegas and I don't think we want to be," Foster said. "We have media coming at us from all directions at all times. I don't see why we would have to add to that."
In concert with Clear Channel, Kealey, Gustafson and Coughlin pressed the more reluctant council members to forge ahead. Sherry and Kautz stood their ground and insisted that the topic needed more public discussion and review, perhaps by a special resident committee.
"Sometimes, we make decisions that will affect this city for 50 to 100 years. This is one of them," Sherry said. "That's why I would rather take some time to make it. This needs more study and we need to get more points of view than we have at this table."
Tom McCarver, vice president of real estate and public affairs at Clear Channel Outdoor, pressured the council to come up with a rough timeline.
"This is not just about you. It's a business decision for you, but it's a long-term decision for us," Kautz said. "Our goals are different than your goals. Don't push."
Ebeling said staff would try to pull something together by August.