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Billboard back in the news

Should it stay or should it go?

That was the question for Sunnyside's city council Monday night regarding Prosser contractor Tom Paul's billboard along South First Street.

Council split on the matter in a 4-to-3 vote, revoking Paul's conditional use permit.

City Attorney Mark Kunkler recommended revoking the permit and, in effect, removing the sign because Paul, said Kunkler, violated a settlement agreement.

Kunkler explained that Paul placed the political billboard 14 and a half feet from his property line rather than the minimum 20 feet mandated in the conditional use permit.

Kunkler based that on a survey commissioned by Paul in 1978, showing a 30-foot city right-of-way, rather than 20 feet.

Further, he said Paul violated a stop-work order by pouring concrete for the billboard.

"We have ordinances in place and it sets a bad precedent to allow people to continue construction after a stop work order is issued," said Councilman Paul Garcia, who later voted in favor of revoking the conditional use permit.

In countering Kunkler's claims, Tom Paul and his attorney, J.J. Sandlin, stated that all parties agreed to the right-of-way as stipulated in the conditional use permit. That, in turn, makes the later discovery of the 1978 survey mute.

"It becomes a 27-year adverse possession of city property because of the city's acceptance of the boundaries in the conditional use permit," Sandlin said.

Paul also argued that he had to violate the stop-work order because of the eight-foot deep holes and steel rebar already in place at the site. "From a liability standpoint I had to pour the concrete," he noted.

Sandlin and Paul also noted that the billboard was previously approved by the Board of Adjustment before council intervened.

Council member Carol Stone said she felt city staff's desire to remove the sign was politically motivated since the billboard message speaks against City Manager Bob Stockwell.

Though the question was simple-Should the billboard stay or should it go?-council wrestled a good 90 minutes or so before finding an answer.

Following a suggestion, without motion, by Councilman Mike Farmer, council leaned in favor of tabling the whole issue to let Kunkler and Sandlin negotiate by hashing out the permit's language and avoid litigation.

"I feel like there's two parties here with batteries on their shoulder hoping the other will knock theirs off first," Farmer said of the stalemate.

Stockwell expressed frustration with council's inclination to table the issue, citing lack of direction for the city's legal staff. He called the inaction council's way of avoiding a difficult issue. "Do you think the sign should stay? Then say yes," he added. "If not, then revoke it."

Moments later Councilwoman Theresa Hancock moved to have Paul's conditional use permit revoked. That was followed by a second from Garcia.

"My thoughts mainly focused on the settlement agreement that the city struck with Tom before I joined council," Hancock said later of her decision to revoke Paul's permit. "In reading the settlement, I think it was very well spelled out that the 20 feet was included in the settlement.

Hancock added, "I could not think of what a 'negotiation' on a settlement would look like. We did that prior to the settlement."

As noted earlier, Council split on the matter, with Hancock, Jim Restucci, Garcia and Ed Prilucik voting to revoke the permit. Stone, Farmer and Bengie Aguilar opposed the revocation.

Public response to council's action was equally split.

"We have lots of laws on the books, but how many are enforced?" resident Don Outhet asked council. "They are selectively enforced and I think that's what happened here. I thought we had a new beginning. I'm disappointed."

Bill Gant, council member elected, saw things differently.

"You acted in a professional manner and asked the right questions," Gant told council. "You did a good job."

Council's decision doesn't close the Paul billboard debate, however.

Following Monday's meeting, Paul told the Daily Sun News that he and his lawyer will file a lawsuit against the city today, Tuesday, in Superior Court for violating the settlement agreement.

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