The giant controversial billboard on Mayo Island could soon come down, but the details of its planned removal are in dispute.
John G. "Chip" Dicks, a lawyer for Louisiana-based Lamar Advertising, says the company is close to signing a settlement agreement with Richmond to remove the sign. It will come down only as part of a bargain struck with the city to allow an electronic message billboard on Interstate 95 at the Fifth Street interchange, he says.
Opponents of the deal say a 2003 judge's order means the city doesn't need to bargain to remove the Mayo Island sign. And City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, patron of an ordinance allowing the Fifth Street sign, says there is no bargain.
"It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic," says Leighton Powell of Scenic Virginia, an environmental group opposing billboards, of the proposed deal. She says the sign is "illegal -- it's been illegal since the day it went up. But this is a terrible deal."
Not true, says Dicks, who insists the 2003 judge's decision was inconclusive. He says that a change in state law he helped champion could color a modern interpretation of the court decision anyway.
In addition to removing the Mayo Island sign, the new agreement with the city would allow Lamar to buy back four other billboards the city took and then leased back to Lamar about 20 years ago during James River floodwall construction. Lamar would also concede three smaller billboards on city roads, all in exchange for the new electronic billboard at Fifth Street.
The deal hinges on the City Council's approval, Dicks says. Without it, he says, the Mayo billboard — which stands more than 90 feet high and is out of compliance with zoning regulations — stays.
"If the City Council does not approve that ordinance, then we continue the Mayo's Island litigation," Dicks says, detailing a doomsday scenario that includes a years-long legal process likely to cost the city hundreds of thousands in legal fees and as much as $1.4 million to compensate Lamar's loss of the sign.
"I think that kind of attitude is more likely to give us reason to question whether or not we're negotiating this in good faith," Robertson says.
Dicks says that he has "eight of nine council members," including Robertson, agreeable to the compromise and that Mayor L. Douglas Wilder has also given his consent. "I expect this to be unanimous," Dicks says. S