Beltline billboard

Adams Outdoor Advertising cites the Cannonball bike path bridge dispute with the city in its free speech lawsuit against the city of Madison filed Tuesday, which challenges the constitutionality of the city sign ordinance.

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Less than a week after it lost an appeals court decision over a Beltline billboard to the city of Madison, Adams Outdoor Advertising sued the city in federal court, alleging that the city’s sign control ordinance violates its rights to free speech and due process.

Adams, which has gone to court in recent years against Madison, Fitchburg and Dane County over the placement of its billboards around the area, argues in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Madison that Madison’s ordinance is unconstitutional because it bans new advertising signs, such as billboards.

Adams also asserts that the ordinance unconstitutionally imposes unreasonable restrictions on existing advertising signs in the city but doesn’t ban or impose the same restrictions on other types of signs in the city, such as real estate, political and non-commercial signs.

“The city imposes disparate treatment on advertising signs versus other signs because it favors the content of those other signs,” according to the lawsuit, “and it does so in a manner that is not narrowly tailored to advance a compelling governmental interest.”

Adams said the city’s ordinance unconstitutionally prohibits Adams from building new billboards and building digital billboards, and keeps it from replacing or refurbishing existing billboards in the city.

“In other words, the city’s ordinance is designed to eventually completely eliminate an important and protected form of speech based on the content of such speech,” the lawsuit states.

That violates Adams’ rights under the state constitution, as well as the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, Adams wrote in its lawsuit.

Adams is asking that a court bar the ordinance from being enforced as unconstitutional and seeks unspecified damages.

Madison City Attorney Michael May said Wednesday that he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it.

The company has 111 billboard structures within the city of Madison, supporting 220 billboard signs, according to the lawsuit. Most are traditional billboards but a few are capable of displaying digital electronic messages, which Wisconsin legalized in a limited fashion in 2006.

Adams claims Madison Mayor Paul Soglin wants to eliminate all of Adams’ billboards in the city, and that some City Council members have also expressed hostility toward the company.

It cites instances in which the company says the city encouraged property owners not to renew leases with Adams as redevelopment plans for commercial properties were considered by city staff and council members in recent years.

And the lawsuit cites statements Soglin made, in particular at a City Council meeting in January 2015 in which Soglin stated, “If we are very cautious and restrictive in our approach to billboards the property owners will have to rethink the leases, who knows, in some instances we may find in a period of years four or five leases are not renewed.”

In April, according to the lawsuit, Adams submitted 26 permit applications to the city to make changes to existing billboards at various locations around the city, including raising structures and installing lighting and digital sign faces. In June, the city zoning administrator denied all but one of those applications.

The city’s sign ordinance, the lawsuit states, makes all existing advertising signs nonconforming uses under city zoning and completely prohibits new billboards, and it creates districts within the city in which billboards are prohibited, which the lawsuit asserts is a violation of Adams’ free speech rights.

The lawsuit also challenges the ordinance as vague and overbroad, in violation of Adams’ right to due process. Adams also says that the ordinance is an unconstitutional exercise of prior restraint and violates the company’s rights to equal protection because of the way it defines and regulates advertising signs.

Last week, the state 4th District Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by a Dane County judge that dismissed a lawsuit Adams brought against the city. Adams had claimed that the city’s construction of the Cannonball bike path bridge over the Beltline, which partially blocked the view of one of Adams’ billboards, was an unlawful property taking.

Adams is appealing a separate decision by another Dane County judge who ruled that the city of Fitchburg properly denied Adams permission to install a digital billboard to replace one partially blocked by a bike path bridge that crosses Highway PD in Fitchburg, near Verona Road.

And last year, a different Dane County judge ruled against Adams’ claim that the Dane County Board improperly voted not to renew a lease to Adams of Dane County Regional Airport land where three billboards had stood since 1966. That decision has also been appealed.

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Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.