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Epic Outdoor Advertising wants to lower and digitize this billboard at 3435 Sturgis Road. 

Chris Huber, Journal staff

The seemingly endless debate over whether to allow more digital billboards in Rapid City was revived Monday night when the Rapid City Council — in spite of strong opposition — unanimously approved a new digital sign on Sturgis Road on the city's west side.

Epic Outdoor Advertising of Rapid City will be allowed to install a two-sided, off-premises digital billboard, which means it is not located on the site of a business, but stands alone. The sign is in the 3400 block of Sturgis Road, a main route that leads into Rapid City.

The 30-foot-tall digital billboard will replace an existing standard billboard.

The new digital sign proposal is the latest salvo in the ongoing battle by some residents and the group Scenic Rapid City to oppose new digital signs. The lighted signs are a favorite of businesses that want to send a strong message, but are opposed by some residents who refer to them as "visual clutter."

At the council meeting Monday night, Alderman Ron Weifenbach said it was only "realistic" for the council to approve the digital sign. He said older, unsightly signs remain in town because the city had banned or tried to ban other options, including digital.

In spite of calls for policy reform, he said the city has adequate regulations now in place in regard to digital signage.

"I don't think the sign code needs to be overhauled," he said. "These guys do not want to have these old billboards. It's not profitable to them. It's not sightly for the city, but we forced them into a position to keep them by banning other particular billboards."

Scenic Rapid City members Lisa Modrick, Mike Quasney and Debra Jensen attended the meeting Monday night and urged the council to deny the sign.

The group asked for tighter rules on digital billboards, such as an 8-second time limit for alternating messages, and that the city put a moratorium on off-premises digital signs until the city can define future limits.

"I'm asking you to represent me," Quasney said.

Scenic Rapid City had spearheaded an initiated measure to ban any new off-premises digital billboards that voters in 2011 approved with 66 percent of the vote.

In February 2014, however, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Jeffrey Viken overturned the restraint, saying that a total prohibition on off-premises digital billboards conflicted with state law, which allows limited local control.

The legality of another voter-approved measure from 2011 remains in limbo in U.S. District Court. The measure, which had also been pushed by Scenic Rapid City and remains in effect, requires billboards to be spaced at least 1,500 feet apart.

With a final ruling still locked in court, Modrick said before the Monday meeting that it's "open season" in Rapid City for new digital signage.

"All it takes is one, and the rest will follow," Modrick said. "Right now, things need to be on hold. If we're on hold for the sign code, then we should be on hold for what we're permitting to happen."

Modrick said the proposed digital billboard would create a lighting nuisance for nearby homes and properties, and could distract drivers.

She said the digital billboard, which according to the city will be 250 square-feet per side, is too large and not properly spaced apart from other billboards.

Assistant City Attorney Carla Cushman said before the meeting that the city code governing billboards has not been revised since Viken overturned the city's ban on off-premises digital signs.

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The existing billboard at the Sturgis Road site is a "legal, non-conforming" billboard, meaning it was originally built to city specifications but the sign code has since changed, Cushman said.

She said billboard owners who rebuild legal, non-conforming signs are exempt from the city's 1,500-foot spacing requirement from other signs.

“It’s the same standards for static billboards as for digital billboards. We could amend the ordinance to specifically address digital billboards but we just haven’t done that," Cushman said.

"Our sign code says that you can rebuild a legal, non-conforming sign as long as you bring it into compliance with the sign code, with the exception of spacing, and so, I know that this particular sign, just like most other rebuilt signs, doesn’t meet the spacing requirements.”

Meanwhile, Modrick accused Brendan Casey of Epic Outdoor Advertising of trying to threaten a gag order to stop Scenic Rapid City's public outcry via civil litigation.

“We’re still in America. We still have the right for free speech, and we still have the right to talk about the things that the community is doing and the development of this community from the past, the present and the future.”

In an email conversation Monday, Casey said Scenic Rapid City group members had been making false claims about the sign, and that his legal counsel sent a letter to the group meant to inform them of state law as it relates to slander and defamation.

"I think this group's determination to rid Rapid City's landscape of all signs has interfered with their ability to be reasonable and acknowledge the rights of local businesses to advertise in Rapid City," Casey said in the email. "Towards that end, they have crossed the line of both decency and legality, and we have given them notice of such."

Prior to the unanimous vote, Council member Amanda Scott asked whether the desired billboard meets the city's code requirements and how potential complaints would be handled.

City Attorney Joel Landeen confirmed the sign does meet city code and that Epic Outdoor Advertising would have to continue following the standards to stay legal. Landeen said complaints would be handled by the city's complaint-based Code Enforcement Division.

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