Madison’s longstanding ban on new billboards could be changed under a proposal by City Council President Chris Schmidt to let companies remove existing signs and put up replacements elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Mayor Paul Soglin and four council members are seeking to refine rules for the size and placement of commercial signs, especially on upper floors, on certain buildings and formalize the approval process for signs in historic districts, landmarks and landmark sites.

Schmidt’s proposed “cap and replace” program would let companies take down billboards, get credit for the square footage removed, and apply the credit to a billboard to be erected in another location. New billboards would not be allowed in historic or urban design districts or on landmark buildings but could be placed in commercial areas.

The proposal would make it easier to move billboards in the way of redevelopment or road projects and reduce the potential for costly litigation while keeping the overall square footage of billboards in check and protecting neighborhoods, Schmidt said.

Chris Eigenberger, general manager of Adams Outdoor Advertising, which owns the vast majority of the roughly 130 billboards in the city, said the proposal serves the interests of the city and advertising industry.

“I like it when older parts of town develop and become more vibrant. We don’t want to stand in the way of that,” Eigenberger said. “At the same time, we don’t want to put ourselves out of business.”

The industry can’t afford to simply sell or take billboards down, he said. “We have a very finite inventory,” he said. “You can’t put a value on it. It’s all we have. It’s irreplaceable.”

Adams, which owns about 105 billboards in the city, finds that a billboard interferes with development one or two times a year, he said.

The proposal, however, sharply parts with the city’s decades-old policy of not allowing new billboards and reducing their numbers through attrition, expired leases, redevelopment or roadwork.

Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, who represents the core Downtown, hasn’t taken a position on Schmidt’s proposal but said mayors and council members have long opposed new billboards.

“My concern is one of aesthetics,” Verveer said. “I find them to be aesthetically unappealing.”

Madison and many other places across the nation began to push billboards out decades ago.

In 1977, the city tried to force removal of all billboards on State Street and around Capitol Square within two years. The city later extended the law to other areas, but the industry went to court. After a settlement, rules have banned billboards in the core Downtown, declared other existing billboards nonconforming — meaning they can’t be improved or expanded — and banned new or replacement signs. The settlement allowed permits for five new billboards and 11 replacements. All have been used.

Over time, the city began to demand billboard removal on development project permits, but in recent years the state Legislature has curbed cities’ ability to force billboards out. In 2007, two former council members unsuccessfully tried to pass a cap-and-replace ordinance.

The new proposal would let sign companies “bank” square footage from removed signs to be used toward a permit for a new sign, which could be no more than 30 feet tall in select zoning districts.

Adams is comfortable with the areas where billboards could be relocated, Eigenberger said.

Sign ordinance also eyed

The city’s sign rules are already strict in residential areas. The proposal by Soglin and others would close loopholes and better define regulations in other zoning districts.

For some time, developers have been proposing ambitious signs — some illuminated — on the upper floors of buildings that draw complaints, officials said.

The proposal would make the rules more uniform, limit signs on mixed-use and residential buildings largely to the street level and limit signs on the upper floors of tall commercial buildings to one per facade, zoning administrator Matt Tucker said.

Carole Schaeffer, executive director of Smart Growth Madison, said the organization is concerned but not alarmed by the sign proposal and hopeful final language will allow creativity and effective signage.

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Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.