Highway 191 Billboard

The Gallatin County Commission voted Tuesday to allow an advertising company to keep an illuminated billboard in the Gallatin Canyon, shown here in a photo taken on Jan. 3, 2019.

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Despite nearby landowners’ opposition, the Gallatin County Commission voted Tuesday to allow an advertising company to keep an illuminated billboard in the Gallatin Canyon.

The commissioners’ decision will likely settle a lawsuit with Saunders Outdoor Advertising, Inc., the Utah-based company that owns the billboard.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Gallatin County District Court, stems from 2009 zoning regulations that banned billboards in the area but allowed the Saunders billboard at 64070 Gallatin Road to remain until this year.

Three years after the regulations were enacted, Nicole Olmstead, the county’s compliance officer, discovered the billboard hadn’t lit up for about a year, which she argued meant it was no longer exempt from the 2009 zoning regulations. She ordered Saunders to stop lighting the billboard to comply with the regulations, which prohibit illuminated signs.

Saunders appealed Olmstead’s decision to the county board of adjustments in 2014. As part of its decision, the board ordered Saunders to stop lighting the billboard.

Saunders then appealed the board’s decision to the court and requested the county pay for lost revenue from contracts that promised an illuminated billboard.

Now, by letting the billboard remain, commissioners are likely resolving the concerns Saunders brought up in the lawsuit.

However, nearby landowners say the commissioners’ decision breaks their 2009 promise to remove the billboard this year.

Landowner Bill Lerch called it “a complete about-face” and said the county is “rolling over under the threat of a lawsuit.”

The commissioners rejected landowners’ arguments, saying they can’t remove Saunders’ billboard because the company followed regulations when it was installed.

“It affects everybody in this county if we start regulating uses after the fact,” said Commission Chairman Joe Skinner.

The commissioners said their decision to let the billboard remain is about fairness.

“There was no zoning in that area because people didn’t want zoning in that area until there was something they didn’t like, so they created a zoning document that directly addressed one thing that they didn’t like … ,” said Commissioner Scott MacFarlane. “That just set people up to take property from their neighbors. That is just disagreeable to me.”

Landowners urged the commissioners to resolve the lawsuit in other ways, including by paying to remove the billboard.

“I understand that you have to address the lawsuit that Saunders has brought, but I would also say as commissioners, you’re also speaking for us, the landowners,” said Peter Scherfig. “We don’t know what Saunders is asking, and you haven’t asked us how we might want to proceed with this.”

Lerch requested the commissioners research other options. Nicole Warner, another nearby landowner, asked the commissioners to wait on making a decision until more nearby residents have voiced their opinions about the billboard.

Ultimately, landowners are worried the billboard destroys the beauty of Gallatin Canyon, distracts drivers, causes light pollution and reduces their property values.

“Your obligation should be to the landowners and taxpayers of this county not to out-of-state interests,” Lerch said.

In response to the concerns, Skinner suggested the landowners could negotiate with Saunders to purchase the billboard and then remove it themselves.

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