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Despite Illegality, Mayo Island Sign Still Stands

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Despite seemingly long odds, Lamar Advertising is still betting it will get to keep its stake in a disputed and allegedly illegal billboard on Mayo Island.

The sign, which advertises the weekly Virginia Lottery jackpot to northbound drivers along Interstate 95, is a visual obstruction to southbound drivers along the same stretch, say the sign's detractors. Mayor Doug Wilder has called it an aesthetic obstruction.

It was nearly a year ago that Lamar's lawyer, John G. "Chip" Dicks, told Style that the city was treating the company unfairly in demanding the sign come down. Now Dicks is striking a more conciliatory tone, saying, "We are in the process of engaging discussions with the mayor and with City Council about the Mayo Island sign."

The sign was constructed in 1977 and soars 97 feet over the James River — and about 50 feet above what zoning allows for advertising signs of that kind. Dicks says the city approved the construction in 1977 and that the sign was built under the assumption that the height limit was 45 feet above the road, not the river.

Dicks compares the sign's construction with any such sign built in a ditch that logically must be built a bit higher to account for the hole it's in: "Here you have a big ditch — it's called the James River."

Dicks expects to negotiate a settlement with the city about the Mayo Island sign. Complicating matters are seven more billboards once owned by Lamar inside city limits. They have since been reclaimed by the city and are now leased by Lamar from the city. Those leases, Dicks says, are about to expire. Dicks is negotiating to keep all the signs up.

"If you condemn it [the Mayo Island sign], and you were to take both Lamar's interest and the landowner's interest, the value would be in excess of $1.5 million," he says. But also compelling, according to longtime opponents of the sign, is that the courts have ruled the sign should go.

"Part of the City of the Future plan was to clean up the gateways and that sign was to come down," says Leighton Powell, executive director of Scenic Virginia.

She says that Lamar — maybe with the complacency of the city — is using stall tactics. A further appeal by Lamar of its zoning has been "indefinitely continued," Powell says: "What part of illegal do they not understand?" S

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