It’s the only billboard you’ll see travelling the Gallatin Canyon, and it’s the source of years of contention. The Saunders Outdoor Advertising billboard was erected in 2009 and is currently the subject of a lawsuit between the owner and Gallatin County.

Beckman Flats billboard saga continues

Current lawsuit over illumination could affect zoning requirements
“The next step is to go to trial, if mediation doesn’t work. And that can take years.”—Deputy Gallatin County Attorney Erin Arnold

Ever notice that billboard in the midst of Gallatin Canyon? It stands alone beneath Storm Castle Peak in the Beckman Flats area. And there it will remain while litigation between the sign’s owner and Gallatin County continues to drag on after nearly 10 years of complaints from neighbors. 

     In December 2009, the North Gallatin Canyon Zoning District was formed to “promote public health, safety, and general welfare.” One of its regulations bans billboards in the area.

     The zoning document states, “These regulations give reasonable consideration to the character of the district and its peculiar suitability for particular uses with a view to conserving the value of buildings and encouraging the most appropriate use of land.”

     This zoning district was created, “To promote and preserve the unique rural and scenic resources of the Gallatin Canyon, and to promote the safety of the traveling public along State Highway 191.”

     The district put particular emphasis on non-conforming signs—the billboard, installed in early 2009, is non-conforming because it’s too big. Also, regulations do not allow the lighting of non-conforming signs. The rules spell out how signs must be brought into conformity, or if not, removed within 10 years from the adoption of the zoning regulation. So, that would mean the billboard owned by Saunders Outdoor Advertising would need to be taken down by Dec. 16, 2019.

     But it’s clearly not coming down without a fight. 

     In the summer of 2010, Gallatin County received a complaint from a property owner neighboring the sign, stating the billboard was non-conforming and it was illuminated in violation of zoning regulations. 

     More complaints came in 2012 from the same parties, with new neighbors included, citing the same issues. It was then that Gallatin County Code Compliance Specialist Nicole Olmstead issued a “Notice of Violation” to Saunders, stating the lighting of the billboard was no longer permitted and directing Saunders to cease the illumination.

     Saunders appealed that decision in September 2012. Then in July 2014, after lots of back and forth between Gallatin County and Saunders, the billboard company was again directed to remove the lighting. 

     Saunders pleaded with the Gallatin County Zoning Board, stating the county had not only approved the billboard, but the lighting of it. The advertisement was first illuminated in April 2009, and as court documents state, soon after “displeased neighbors” lobbied Gallatin County to adopt the previously mentioned zoning regulations, which would effectively ban billboards. 

     Now Saunders is suing Gallatin County. Weston Saunders and County Commissioner Joe Skinner were deposed last month and the case continues.

     This begs the question—if litigation is ongoing in December 2019, when the sign is supposed to be taken down per zoning regulations, would the sign really be required to be removed? Senior Civil Deputy County Attorney Erin Arnold could not answer that question while the suit is pending.

     After depositions, “The next step is to go to trial, if mediation doesn’t work,” Arnold said. “And that can take years.”

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