Tom Paul, the artist responsible for the demonstrative signs that decorate the corridor along South Hill Road chastising city government and local media, found a hesitant ally at Monday night's Sunnyside City Council meeting. But not even the support of Mayor Pro-tem Mike Farmer was enough to get Paul his way.
Paul went before the City Council last night trying to get the governing body to overturn its decision to not allow a conditional use permit, which he needs to erect a billboard on his property just off South First Street.
Paul's saga began back in November when the city's Board of Adjustment granted a conditional use permit without any conditions to allow a billboard to be placed on his South First Street property.
City staff challenged the action of the board based on many factors, including the point that the conditional use permit didn't have any conditions placed on it, said Sunnyside City Manager Bob Stockwell Monday night.
City staff went before the board at a Dec. 1 meeting last year asking the members to reconsider their action. The board refused to consider hearing the request of city staff.
City staff then took the matter before the City Council, which has the power to overturn decisions made by city boards. The Council then reversed the Board of Adjustment's decision.
All of this action led to Monday night's quasi-judicial appeal hearing by Paul.
Before the hearing began, Farmer said he had a discussion with Paul early on regarding zoning laws. Councilman Jim Restucci added that at his Internet company, he had hosted a public forum where multiple comments had been received on the matter. Restucci said he didn't participate in any of the discussions.
Before the hearing, Paul questioned the proceedings of the actions. Paul said the hearing states no new testimony or documentation will be received. Paul said he felt some of the materials being presented to Council was new information. Assistant City Manager Mark Kunkler disagreed with Paul, saying that all of the information before Council had been presented at past meetings.
Paul said he felt by the city not allowing him a conditional use permit, it was denying him to do whatever he wanted with his property.
Paul also found fault that the city didn't send him notification of the public hearings to his residential address in Prosser, but rather an address in Sunnyside. Paul said he was also not given the documentation he was promised by city staff.
Kunkler said the city acted within the proper parameters, sending the notification to the last known address of Paul. He added that Paul was present for all of the public meetings.
"I think the records speak for themselves," said Kunkler.
Stockwell then presented the case for the city, reviewing some of the past history.
Stockwell said the issues that should have been addressed by the Board of Adjustment were not.
"A conditional use permit is not a right," said Stockwell. "It is a conditional use permit. A conditional use permit by its nature requires conditions."
Stockwell pointed out that Paul voluntarily removed the billboard materials that were on his site along South First Street, voiding the then existing conditional use permit.
Billboards are something that are generally not allowed in cities, said Stockwell. Billboards are usually restricted to major freeway corridors. Stockwell said it would not be in the best interest of the city to reintroduce a billboard along South First Street, especially with the major roadway improvement project slated to begin this year.
Stockwell said the city is acting in the best interest of the community by not allowing Paul a new conditional use permit. He noted that it could cost taxpayers in granting Paul his permit, if the city had to pay to move the new billboard once the South First Street improvement project begins.
In his defense, Paul said the city should have taken into consideration the South First Street project when the Board of Adjustment renewed the conditional use permit. Paul said the city knew about the project at the time.
Paul said he is losing out financially by not having been given a conditional use permit. He said he was receiving $600 per year from the company that was advertising on the former billboard. Paul said after finding out how much the company made off leasing advertising space on the billboard, he decided he want to utilize the location for the same thing.
Paul said his plans were to place the billboard out of the way of the needed road expansion for South First Street.
"I was trying to work with the city," said Paul. "All I want to do is put my sign up. I don't want to get in the way of the road."
After the Council reversed the Board of Adjustment decision, Paul said he received a letter from city official Mike Storms on Dec. 27, telling him he would need an office on site for his billboard. He said Storms also told him he would have to take down his smaller sign advertising his construction company that has been on site for 10 years.
After personally contacting Storms, "He told me he didn't want to argue because he was just following orders," said Paul.
At that point in last night's meeting, Board of Adjustment member Craig Miller approached the podium to speak, but was immediately told to sit down because no new testimony was being received.
"Not all you guys know the whole story," said Miller. "You are only hearing one side."
Restucci said he empathizes with Paul, but said he wasn't pleased with the way the local businessman reacted to the city's decision.
"I think your conduct has been childish. I would have expected more professionalism," said Restucci. "I feel like your actions are trying to blackmail the city."
Councilman Don Vlieger said the sign Paul wants to put up doesn't meet with what the city is trying to do in the area.
Vlieger voiced some other concerns such as Board of Adjustment members holding a private discussion away from the microphone during a public meeting.
"That is very disturbing to me," said Vlieger.
Farmer asked Paul if he was led by city staff to believe that he would receive his conditional use permit.
"I was never led to believe everything was not alright," said Paul.
Farmer said he felt the city had no right to deny Paul his permit, especially since Sunnyside has no sign ordinance governing what can and can't be put up.
"I do believe that maybe you were misled or misunderstood," said Farmer. "I think it is your right to put that sign down there."
The Council then voted to reject Paul's request for a conditional use permit. Farmer and Councilman Paul Garcia voted against rejecting the request.
Afterwards, Council adopted an emergency 90-day moratorium banning new signs being placed in the community.