Posted by: Patricia Salkin | March 23, 2012

Montana Supreme Court Upholds Granting of Permits for Billboards

The Montana State Department of Transportation granted billboard sign permits to the Lamar Outdoor Advertising Corporation, allowing billboards to be constructed on a property used for gravel mines.  A group of neighbors filed suit against the DOT seeking to have the billboards removed, arguing that the billboards do not comply with the Montana Outdoor Advertising Act (hereinafter “MOAA”), the grant of the permits was unlawful, and that the billboards constitute a public nuisance.  The trial court found for the State, and the Montana Supreme Court affirmed.

MOAA requires, under pertinent part, that billboard signs be located along the highway and within 600 feet of un-zoned commercial or industrial area.  Upon review of the billboard permit application and the site, DOT determined the billboards could not be placed where Lamar intended, as the billboards would not be located within 600 feet of the gravel mining operation.  Upon speaking with Lamar and the land owner, DOT personnel were convinced that the entire property was commercial or industrial, and thus the signs could be located elsewhere on the parcel – not just within 600 feet of the specific area used. 

In discussing DOT’s determination, the court provided that judicial review is limited to whether DOT acted arbitrarily, capriciously, or unlawfully.  Specifically, in considering this issue, the courts look to the relevant factors and whether there was a “clear error in judgment.”  The Montana Supreme Court stated that the trial court considered all the relevant facts and circumstances and determined that numerous industrial and commercial uses were near the billboard location. The trial court found this was a sufficient reason for DOT to grant the permits.  As the trial court’s determination was not “random, unreasonable or seeming unmotivated,” the Montana Supreme Court declined to reverse.

In addition to the location issues, the neighbors alleged other violations of MOAA.  They first contended that the industrial or commercial uses on the property are temporary and thus a permit cannot be granted.  Although MOAA does not define “temporary,” the Montana’s administrative rules define “unzoned commercial or industrial area” as land being used for industrial or commercial purposes for more than a year.  Since the mining activities had been ongoing for more than a year, the Supreme Court found no fault in the trial court’s determination that the use was not temporary.

The neighbors also alleged that Lamar’s filing of an incomplete application was in violation of MOAA.  The trial court found the application was incomplete, but the court also found the application was in substantial compliance with DOT regulations and was substantially complete.  The trial court further found DOT had sufficient information to make their determination, and thus affirmed the grant of the permits.  The Supreme Court likewise declined to disturb the trial court’s ruling.

The Supreme Court then addressed the nuisance claims.  The court provided that since the billboard permits satisfied MOAA’s requirements, the nuisance claims must also fail. 

Hobble Diamond Ranch v. State, 363 Mont. 310 (2012)

The opinion can be accessed at: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/mt-supreme-court/1591589.html


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