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Originally published January 27, 2014 at 8:24 PM | Page modified January 28, 2014 at 9:40 AM

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City sues over deals skirting rules on signs

Seattle is suing to stop a national sign company from making deals with local property owners to lease out signs illegally across the city.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The city of Seattle is cracking down on sign companies trying to take advantage of a loophole in city rules.

The City Council banned new billboards in Seattle in the 1980s, but some companies are leasing out local businesses’ signs to high-paying corporate clients like Microsoft and AT&T.

The deals raked in money for Total Outdoor signage company to the tune of $12,000 to $40,000 per month per sign, and helped local business and property owners make extra money on the side, the city says.

For example, a sign at Plaza Garibaldi Restaurant in Lower Queen Anne has sometimes advertised the restaurant. But it also has featured ads for T-Mobile, Blue Moon Beer and Crispin.

The businesses tried to get around the city rules by having the business on the premises sell the product being advertised on the sign. A company might offer Starbucks gift cards if they had a Starbucks sign on their building, or Apple products through a vending machine if they were hosting a large Apple sign.

The moneymaking scheme violates a city ordinance meant to cut down on “blight and driver distraction,” Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a news release. He filed four suits Monday in Seattle Municipal Court against Total Outdoor and several businesses and property owners, threatening civil penalties if the signs don’t stop.

In an email late Monday signed by The Team at Total Outdoor, the company said the litigation came as a surprise, and that it only learned about the lawsuits in the news release.

“It is important to note that since all four sign locations are legally permitted by the city, it appears these lawsuits against private property owners and Total Outdoor are about the content of the signs. If the city has received complaints about these signs, it would be normal practice to initiate code enforcement procedures they could have utilized to inform us of their concerns before pursuing litigation,” the email says.

The company is willing to work with the city to settle issues related to its signs, the email says, but it also brings up a sign measure that’s before the City Council, noting the “curious” timing of legal action that “so closely corresponds with the City Council’s current consideration of the issue.”

The council is weighing stricter rules about signs and is expected to vote next month on limiting the size of the on-premises signs and raising the fine for violating the rules from $500 a day to $1,500 a day.

On its website, Total Outdoor offers at least 19 signs that are approved only for use by businesses on the same property as the signs.

The national company says on its website that it offers “full coverage” in the Seattle market, offering “the most immersive, dominant and relevant location for their brand, product, event or idea.”

Holmes said the company — and others like it — is blatantly undermining city rules.

“The law is clear,” he said in a statement. “Total Outdoor and its partners have hauled in money by violating the law. It’s long past time for them to stop.”

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter

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