City Attorney sues to crack down on ‘sham signs’

This sign appeared on Benson's Grocery in 2011 (Images: CHS)

This sign appeared on Benson’s Grocery in 2011 (Images: CHS)

CHS has reported on the city’s catch-as-catch-can approach to dealing with illegal marketing banners placed on area businesses to promote everything from booze brands to Christian universities in Oregon. For some, they’re a visual blight. Others find them amusingly juxtaposed with the ill-fitting businesses they’re attached to. We suppose a few might even decide to sign up for AT&T or something.

In an attempt to comply with "on-premise" requirements, management offered this application form on the store's counter

In an attempt to comply with “on-premise” requirements, management offered this application form on the store’s counter

Here’s a post from 2011 about the issue:

We’ve delved into the issues around on-promise and off-premise banner advertising in the city before — most recently when we made note of a giant back-pack ad on the side of the Odd Fellows building back in August. That promotion quickly disappeared after our post. We’ve received a few notes from readers about a similar ad that has appeared on Benson’s Grocery for “Christ-centered university” George Fox. Its juxtaposition with the Bearacuda night banner hanging off the neighboring Eagle has been too rich to ignore.


Now, City Attorney Peter Holmes has announced that his office is suing Total Outdoor, one of the biggest operators in the industry. Details on the lawsuit are below.

City sues to stop sham signs

Keeping faith with the City’s long-held goal of controlling the unreasonable proliferation of signs, City Attorney Pete Holmes on Monday sued Total Outdoor, a national outdoor advertising company, and several Seattle building owners and businesses for flagrantly violating the on-premises sign code.

Currently Total Outdoor and the owners of the properties where these illegal signs are displayed are reaping monetary benefits — by violating the clear language of the sign code — of anywhere from $12,000 to more than $40,000 per sign a month.

In the four suits filed in Seattle Municipal Court, the City seeks unspecified civil penalties, as well as court costs and attorneys’ fees.

To reduce visual blight and driver distraction, the City Council some time ago enacted ordinances banning new billboards while continuing to allow businesses to attract customers to their establishments through on-premises signs. Under Seattle Municipal Code 23.84A.036, these on-premises signs must be “used solely by a business establishment on the lot where the sign is located” to promote products and services available there.

That provision is key to these lawsuits.  Building owners allow Total Outdoor to use the exterior wall space and Total Outdoor markets the wall space to its own corporate clients to promote their products and services. The business establishments in the buildings with the signs do not control the content of the signs, and certainly do not have “sole use” of the signs.

At issue in the four suits are signs Total Outdoor markets on its web site – — to anyone to hawk anything, even though each sign is permitted only as an “on-premises” sign for the sole use of a business establishment tenant. The rapidly-changing copy on the signs underscores that Total Outdoor is controlling the message, not the business tenants:

1)     A 1,650-square foot sign on the exterior of the Oxford, a four-story apartment building, initially advertised available apartments, but was quickly used to promote a parade of Total Outdoor’s clients: Icelandair, Microsoft Windows Phone,, and JOE TV.

2)     A now-defunct bar called Noc Noc received an on-premises sign permit, but even though the bar shut down in August 2013, the sign has continued to advertise Go Pro cameras and other products.

3)     Garibaldi Restaurant, a tenant in a building on lower Queen Anne Hill, is permitted to advertise on a 392-square foot sign on its façade. The sign has been used for the benefit of ROKU (a consumer electronics company), T-Mobile, Blue Moon Beer, and Crispin. The sign has periodically been used to advertise Garibaldi Restaurant.

4)     The sign for Trago Cocina and Lounge in South Lake Union has advertised AT&T, DICE (a job search website), Nokia/Microsoft/AT&T, and Northface. The sign has periodically been used to advertise Trago Restaurant.

Total Outdoor is marketing 15 other on-premises wall signs, and another media company, Brooklyn Outdoor, is marketing four of its own. The City is sending letters to the business establishments and building owners involved with these other signs to notify them that they will also subject to an enforcement action and to invite them to resolve the matter without litigation.

“The law is clear,” Holmes said. “Total Outdoor and its partners have hauled in money by violating the law. It’s long past time for them to stop.”

Council Member Jean Godden criticizes this sham use of on-premises sign permits by a national media conglomerate.  “This business arrangement requires tenants to put on a fig leaf: to pretend that they control the sign, they offer City inspectors a nominal product or service linked to whatever Total Outdoor happens to advertise.”

Subscribe and support CHS Contributors -- $1/$5/$10 per month

One thought on “City Attorney sues to crack down on ‘sham signs’

  1. Good to know that Seattle at least tries to limit this blight. Portland doesn’t, and the hideous results are everywhere downtown.