Giant billboards skirting city law, sprouting up around Seattle

SEATTLE -- Big-money players in the billboard industry are running rings around Seattle laws, and making a joke out of enforcement. And they're doing it by opening up would-be storefronts that seem barely legitimate. The KOMO 4 Problem Solvers investigated the tricksters that are turning Seattle into a haven for mega-billboards.

What could be for sale sit behind a locked door, inside a covered-up storefront stacked floor to ceiling with junk. Or they sit in a market open for just four hours a week off of a urine-soaked back alley. Or they are in the lobby of a restricted access apartment building.

As shady as all this looks, they're not selling drugs or black-market goods. But for a couple hours at a time at different locations all over the city, a man who wouldn't identify himself will sell you a $20 Apple gift card, Iceland Air gift cards or Target gift cards.

But the truth is he's not really trying to sell anything; he's just a pawn in a game of strategy between big money outdoor advertisers and the city of Seattle.

And the city? Well, it's losing.

Says Seattle Director of Planning and Development Diane Sugimura: "They're probably pushing the law pretty far."

By nominally selling a product that's sort of connected to the billboard outside, advertisers believe they've found a loophole in city law, one that allows them to slide mega billboards into spots where city laws have never allowed any billboards before.

"Finding loopholes, finding ways to manipulate the system -- that's something that really, that's not OK," said Seattle City Council President Sally Clark.

So far, the advertisers are winning and the game is worth millions.

"There seems to be people who can just go slap anything they want up and then just say, 'So? Sue us,"' said Paula Rees, an environmental designer by trade and an outdoor sign activist by vocation.

Rees says mega billboards are exploding on the Seattle horizon that has seen 10 new monolithic-sized signs in just the past few months. None of them are strictly permitted as billboards; instead they skirt the rules by pretending to be a sign advertising products sold within the building where they are displayed.

"And I think the industry knows right now that they can play because there's nobody who can police," said Rees.

For instance, over the past years, a small deli owner off Third Avenue downtown says he's been told to sell gift cards, cheesy plastic cups, even hiking boots. When asked how many pairs of shoes he's sold?

"People ask the price, but it's not discount price or anything. So who's going to buy here?" he said.

Right now, his deli name displayed in small print on the side of the building is the loophole used to place a mega billboard for Target above. And the deli man says he has no choice or input, even though it's his name that makes the billboard at least nominally legal.

"We're just doing it because we rent the spaces from the building, so I don't have no right to demand anything," he said. He didn't want to give us his name.

On Second Avenue, Montana can advertise the wonders of Big Sky Country with a mega billboard because the advertising company asked the owner of AmCan Travel inside the office building if she'd like to have her name on the building.

"(The company said,) 'We're just going to put your name there at no cost to you, how's that?"' said Am Can owner Barbara Robinson. "It's a sweetheart deal. (I) said, 'OK."'

So who is the architect of these sweetheart deals? The company is called Total Outdoor. Its principles Bill Ackerley and Frank Podany have long been players in the outdoor advertising arena. But no one from Total Outdoor has returned KOMO's calls or responded to our requests for an interview.

One of the worst cases is visible from way down on Fourth Avenue.

"It's greedy," said condo owner Joe Rajewski. The billboard is right outside his living room window. Rajewski took pictures as it went up one weekend. And where there used to be an old see-through sign with no lights, Rajewski said, "What I got now is a sign I can't really see through any more. I've got lights that glare into my unit."

"And the worst thing is they just did it with like, they were just indifferent; they just didn't care," said Rajewski.

The city has tried to enforce what laws there are. The city told Total Outdoor the company couldn't put up the billboard next to Escala condos.

"Our inspector was out there, caught them, said, 'Stop. This is illegal,"' said Sugimura. "They went ahead anyway."

The city sued Total Outdoor to take down a mega sign in Sodo. Years later, it is still there.

Said Clark: "I don't think we can say 'OK, we know someone is obviously gaming the rules and breaking the rules, and it's OK to just let that continue and go by."'

Clark proposed a new, tougher law that went nowhere. She admits she's fighting an uphill battle when city priorities only pay for a single sign inspector. But she's not giving up.

"I think we have to get serious about the fines that we charge for not obeying the rules," she said.

There's a huge incentive to skirt the rules as a single mega billboard in downtown Seattle is estimated to bring in as much as $25,000 a month. And if a business is fined it could be after years of litigation and typically doesn't cost the sign companies more than a few thousand dollars. Clark hopes to propose a new law early next year.