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Port Orchard billboard ban draws fire

William Crittenden, attorney for Gotcha Covered Media, expresses his frustration to the city council.   - Courtesy photo
William Crittenden, attorney for Gotcha Covered Media, expresses his frustration to the city council.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Representatives from a Gig Harbor outdoor advertising agency whose application last summer to construct several large billboards in Port Orchard was determined to violate the city’s recent ban on such structures appealed their case at a Feb. 22 city council hearing.

Vigorously.

“You need to pull your head out and stop wasting my client’s money,” said William J. Crittenden, a lawyer representing Rick Engley, owner of Gotcha Covered Media. “Are any of you even lawyers? It’s a little silly that I’m trying to make legal arguments to people who aren’t lawyers, who are receiving legal advice from someone who is in the same firm as what is allegedly my opponent.”

Greg Jacoby, the city’s attorney, said that was a non-issue.

“Our law firm represents the city,” he said. “There’s no problem, in this context, with the law firm both defending the Planning Department and providing legal advice to the city council.”

But Crittenden repeatedly attacked Jacoby at the meeting.

“Do you think that you’ve done a good job of choosing your city attorney?” Crittenden asked Port Orchard Mayor Lary Coppola on Tuesday. “I’ve been treated like crap by your city attorney for six months.”

Coppola listened to Crittenden’s attacks for five minutes and then rapped his gavel until Critenden sat down.

“This is over,” Coppola said. “We’re done here. This man doesn’t have the right to insult everyone in this room because he’s not getting his way. He’s acting like a spoiled child.”

Coppola then left the hearing and didn’t return.

The meeting continued without him.

Gotcha Covered Media applied for building permits for eight billboards up to 35 feet tall on commercial properties along Sedgwick Road, Mile Hill Drive and State Route 16.

The city’s Planning Department denied the request six months ago.

The company, however, argues its application was filed before passage of the ordinance prohibiting the billboards.

Jennifer Forbes, who is representing the city’s Planning Department, acknowledged the advertising agency’s application was submitted prior to enactment of the ordinance but insisted the city was within its rights to deny it retroactively.

“Vesting is a legal doctrine that basically says that an application cannot be denied because a law changes mid-stream,” she explained. “But vesting is not one of those one-size-fits-all concepts.”
For example, building permits vest, while sign permits don’t.

The city’s initial moratorium on billboards, enacted shortly after Gotcha Covered submitted their application, includes language indicating that billboards vest.

“A moratorium is hereby imposed upon accepting or processing any applications or permits for billboards or outdoor advertising structures unless the application was fully vested,” Crittendon read from the moratorium decree.

“If these applications don’t vest,” he asked, “then why does your ordinance say that the reason you passed the moratorium was to stop things from vesting?”

Beyond the vesting issue, the city also denied the permit application because the paperwork wasn’t filled out correctly, Forbes said.

But the city told Engley his application lacked information in the same letter that denied the application, Crittenden said.

“Why would you spend money on engineers and lawyers to provide additional detail about a project,” he asked, “if the city’s position is, ‘That’s not allowed?’”

Besides, Crittenden argued, Engley had provided more than enough detail for the city to proceed with the permitting process.

“Despite the fact that my client provided tax parcel information, drawings, specific information about the zoning and a cover letter,” Crittenden said, “your city attorney and development director are taking the position that we didn’t even give you enough information to process the application.”

Throughout the meeting, Crittendon attacked Forbes, Port Orchard Development Director James Weaver and Greg Jacoby, the city’s attorney.

“I’m sorry that your city council meeting has become a scene of such disruption this evening,” said Crittenden, “but a very serious abuse of city money and power has been happening for six months, and it’s ludicrous that you’re going to go back and consider these arguments.”

The city council hearing isn’t the first or last step in the appeals process for Crittendon and Engley.
They got to the hearing following a denial of their appeal from Theodore Paul Hunter, Port Orchard’s Hearing Examiner, on Nov. 9.

“The city’s interpretation of its code is upheld,” wrote Hunter, “as it was not clearly erroneous but relied upon a defensible analytical rationale.”

It’s rare that a party will push an appeal past the Hearing Examiner to the city council, said Weaver.
“It’s the second appeal to the city council in my jurisdiction since 2008, when I started here,” he said.
The city council has 30 days from the Feb. 22 hearing to issue a written decision.

If Crittenden and Engley or the city of Port Orchard disagree with the decision, then they may appeal to Kitsap County Superior Court.

Engley has been to Superior Court over this issue before.

In 2003, he wanted to install a billboard along State Route 3 in Belfair, and the issue went to Mason County Superior Court, where Engley eventually prevailed.

So far, there are about 700 documents on the record in Port Orchard, related to this issue, said Weaver.

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