Sunday, July 14, 2013

Fairway Retains Use of Two Old Billboards Covered By Settlement With Oconee County

Sign’s Third Side Not Used

Fairway Outdoor Advertising has not removed two of the four billboards it agreed to take down as part of a legal settlement with Oconee County that allowed the sign company to erect the two huge LED signs on Epps Bridge Parkway.

One of the four signs slated for removal–at the intersection of Ruth Jackson Road and U.S. 78–won’t come down until Fairway has completed its contracts for signs at the site, according to county officials.

The other–on U.S. 441 just east of Hog Mountain Road–won’t come down until Fairway has a permit for the sign it is allowed to erect in Butler’s Crossing as part of the legal settlement with the county, Oconee County Code Enforcement Director B.R. White said early last week.

Those big signs on Epps Bridge Parkway got the attention of Allen Skinner, chief appraiser for the county. On Jan. 1 he started including the estimated income from the signs in the value of property on which the signs sit.

As a result, landowners for the 31 billboards Skinner and his staff have counted in the county are being required to pay additional property tax to reflect the values of the leases the landowners sign with the billboard companies.

Three-Sided Sign Approved

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners in February approved an amendment to the initial settlement the county reached with Fairway in July of 2012. The amendment allowed Fairway to fill in the third side of the towering billboard at the intersection of Epps Bridge Parkway and the Oconee Connector.

Three-Sided Sign Epps Bridge Parkway
July 13

The triangular sign 60 feet above the ground next to the building housing a Verizon store and Starbucks is a companion to a similarly-sized sign a short distance away over the building in which PeachMac is located in the Markets at Epps Bridge.

Both signs are illuminated with LED lights and change images quickly and repeatedly.

As part of the February amendment, Fairway agreed to remove a much older, three-panel sign at Ruth Jackson Road and U.S. 78 in the western part of the county.

Fairway Still Using Old Billboard

Fairway is still taking new clients for the billboard on Ruth Jackson Road and U.S. 78, with two of the three panels of the sign getting new covering at the end of June.

Ruth Jackson (Looking East)
 June 1

A potential fourth side of the sign is not used because the view of that side is obstructed by a building.

Ruth Jackson (Looking East)
July 6

Foliage was removed from the sign at the end of the month as well.

Two Of Three Sides Illuminated

County Administrative Officer Jeff Benko told me in an email message on June 18 that the sign on Ruth Jackson Road “will come down in 90-120 days and then they will start using the 3rd face” at Epps Bridge Parkway and the Oconee Connector.

Benko told me he had contacted County Attorney Daniel Haygood in response to my questions about the two signs and learned of the agreement with Fairway regarding the timing of use of the third side of the three-sided sign. Benko said the county’s code enforcement office is responsible for monitoring the agreement.

Code Enforcement Director White told me in a telephone conversation on Tuesday that his office checks the sign on Epps Bridge Parkway and the Connector “about once a week” to make sure it is not illuminated before the sign on Ruth Jackson Road and U.S. 78 is removed.

Farmington Signs Down

White told me that Fairway had removed two signs on U.S. 441 near Farmington in the far south of the county before erecting the two LED signs on Epps Bridge Parkway.

One of those, at the Texaco station, was an old sign on wooden poles, the stubs of which remain visible at the station.

Sign Stubs Near Farmington

Fairway also agreed to remove a large, more modern sign on U.S. 441 north of Watkinsville at the Tribe Fitness Center.

White told me that Fairway plans to remove that sign only when it gets a permit for a sign that it plans to build in Butler’s Crossing. That sign was part of the agreement between the county and Fairway approved a year ago.

The settlement resulted in a permanent dismissal of a suit Fairway filed against the county in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia Athens Division. Fairway contended that the county’s sign ordinance was improperly administered and was unconstitutional.

White said Fairway has not yet submitted any permit applications for the Butler’s Crossing sign.

Fairway Billboards Keyed Assessment

Oconee County Chief Appraiser Skinner told me in a telephone conversation on Wednesday that the constructions of the two big Fairway billboards on Epps Bridge Parkway made him aware of an inconsistency in his policy on land leases.

“We have been doing (assessing leases for) cell towers for several years,” he said. “When they were building those big ones (billboards) on Epps Bridge Parkway, it was clear this was a really big business.”

Cell Tower on U.S. 441
Near Hog Mountain Road

Both cell tower companies and billboard companies lease land from the owner and then construct either the tower or the billboard. The landowner gains revenue from that lease, though the tower and billboard are not owned by the landower.

The county has been assessing the values of the leases for the more than 20 cell towers in the county since at least 2006, Skinner said. That was when he started working as an assessor in Oconee County. His conclusion on the billboard leases was that “we’ve got to pick up those revenues for the county.”

Lacking a list to work from, Skinner sent his staff out to find billboards. They came up with a list of 31, more than half of them owned by Fairway.

First Fairway LED Sign Assessed

Skinner’s office has estimated the value of the lease for the Markets at Epps Bridge LLC, where the two-sided Fairway LED sign on Epps Bridge Parkway is located, to be $1,500 per month, or $18,000.

At the tax rate for the property posted on county electronic tax records, that would increase the tax for the property by $176.

Because the three-sided sign was not completed by Jan. 1, Skinner did not add any lease income this year to the value of the property on which the sign is located. That property is owned by Wright Land Company.

Tribe Fitness on U.S. 441

Skinner told me he expects the lease value to be considerably more for three-sided sign than for the one at the Markets at Epps Bridge.

Skinner estimated the lease value of the signs at Ruth Jackson Road and U.S. 78 to be only $250 per month and the lease value of the sign at the Tribe Fitness Center to be $500 per month.

Only Two Complaints

Skinner said he has received only two complaints as a result of his decision to add the lease value of the billboards to the county tax digest.

One came from someone who said the sign was not on his property. That issue was resolved.

The second came from businessman and landowner Mike Power, who, Skinner said, is challenging Skinner’s decision.

Power Property on U.S. 78
Near Bogart

Though Skinner works closely with Tax Commissioner Jennifer T. Riddle, he reports not to Riddle but to a five-person Board of Assessors, which is appointed by the Oconee County Board of Commissioners.

Skinner said Power’s appeal will go first to the Board of Assessors for review and then to the Board of Equalization, which is appointed by the Oconee County Superior Court.

Lease Taxes Common

The taxing of leases is routine and is, in fact, a cornerstone of the tax abatement arrangement the county has with Caterpillar

But not all counties are including the leases of land for billboards on the assessments of the land, Skinner said, and Clarke County, for one, is not.

Billboard companies are required to file a summary of their personal property, which includes the signs themselves, and this property it taxed.

Skinner shared with me two reports from Fairway for 2013, but neither breaks out the value of the signs.

Skinner said that billboard companies also are expected to pay sales taxes on their transactions. Sales taxes are collected by the state and dispersed in lump sums to the county.

1 comment:

Beanne said...

Thanks for all you do to keep up with this. Those billboards are an eyesore. Glad they are at least generating additional taxes.