Appeals court keeps Livonia’s ban on billboards

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

The Michigan Court of Appeals in a June ruling has upheld Livonia’s long-standing ban on billboards.

The decision stems from a legal challenge by International Outdoor Inc., which sells outdoor advertising space on billboards. The company sued the city in 2014 after it denied its application to erect a billboard in the city, and the city’s zoning board of appeals denied a request for variance on the ban.

On June 14, the state appeals court upheld a Wayne County Circuit Court ruling that International Outdoor Inc. failed to establish “a demonstrated public need” for billboards in the city.

Scenic Michigan, Michigan Municipal League, Michigan Townships Association and the Public Corporation of Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan filed a joint brief in support of the city of Livonia in the case.

Larry Merrill, executive director of Michigan Townships Association, said the decisions affirm that the state has granted local governments broad powers to regulate land uses that can be reasonably seen as harming a community’s aesthetic appeal.

“The mere desire to make money at the expense of the community’s appearance is insufficient to establish that the public needs that particular land use,” Merrill said.

James Walsh, attorney for International Outdoor, was not immediately available for comment on the decision.

Livonia has banned new billboards since 1952, allowing those in existence at the time to remain. The last of those billboards was eliminated in 1986.

Abby Dart, executive director for Scenic Michigan, said communities in Michigan and across the country have been at odds with the billboard industry because the companies always want more billboards.

“In the area two miles measured around Livonia’s boundaries there are more than 50 billboards,” Dart said. “We say, ‘Come on, why is that not enough?’ They say, ‘We don’t know why that is not enough, but we want more anyway.’ ”

William Mathewson, general counsel for the Michigan Municipal League, said he hopes the decision will deter other billboard-proponents from challenging local ordinances and a community’s ability to decide what’s best for their residents and landscape.

Mike Fisher, chief assistant city attorney for city of Livonia, said that shortly after Livonia was formed in 1950, city officials drafted the a zoning ordinance that contained an outright ban on billboards.

“This is unusual in the Detroit Metropolitan area: a 36-square-mile billboard-free zone crossed by two busy interstate highways — I-96 and I-275,” Fisher said. “While there are no billboards in Livonia, there are more than 50 billboards in the roughly two-mile wide zone just outside Livonia’s borders.”

Livonia’s billboard ban was challenged in 2001 by a New York company called Nichols & Vann Media Group LLC.

In that suit, the company claimed the billboard ban violated everything from the First Amendment to the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The case was dismissed in Wayne County Circuit Court and Nichols & Vann eventually withdrew an appeal, Fisher said.