Wisconsin High Court Clears City in Billboard Spat

MADISON, Wis. (CN) – The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday affirmed an appeals court ruling that the city of Madison does not have to compensate an advertising firm for building a bridge that obstructed the view of one side of its billboard.

In a 4-3 decision, the state’s highest court found that because the billboard’s owner, Adams Outdoor Advertising, did not have a property right to the flow of traffic on a public road, it stands to reason that it has no property interest in the “continued visibility of its property from that road.”

Ruling in favor of Adams would place an unfair burden on Wisconsin’s capital city as it improves public streets and roads, Justice Ann Bradley wrote in the 21-page majority opinion.

She added that Adams should have foreseen that the city might alter and improve its streets or roads and that those changes might obscure views of its billboard. That it is an “ever-present risk” that billboard owners take when they decide to place billboards close to public roads, the ruling states.

“Property owners are on notice that such changes may alter or obstruct the view of their private property from the public road,” Bradley wrote for the majority. “It is not reasonable for a property owner to rely on the fact that it is located near a public road in a certain condition at a particular moment in time.”

Adams argued that Madison had unconstitutionally taken its property after the city built the Cannonball Bridge nearly five years ago. The overpass crosses the Beltline Highway, adjacent to Adams’ billboard, obstructing views of the west-facing side of the billboard. The public could still see ads from the other side.

A city ordinance prevents Adams from changing the height or location of the billboard. Before the bridge was built, the company said its land was valued at $1.46 million but sunk to $720,000 because it could no longer sell advertising space on the west-facing side.

Adams owns over 100 billboards in Madison and sells space for commercial use and emergency information, such as Amber and weather alerts, election results and information on fugitives.

In 2014, Adams sued the city in Dane County Circuit Court. Both the trial court and court of appeals found that the advertising firm failed to establish a property right as to the continued visibility of the billboard. In challenging the lawsuit, Madison noted that it never physically occupied Adams’ property.

Three judges dissented. Writing for the minority, Justice Rebecca Bradley concluded that Madison had “deprived Adams Outdoor of all economically beneficial use of its permit by constructing a bridge that obliterated the permit’s value,” and that the court should have ordered the city to compensate Adams for its loss.

Justices Pat Roggensack and Daniel Kelly joined the dissent.

Adams has another case pending against Madison in which it claims that regulations on billboard signs have prevented it from building new digital billboards or updating its existing ones, in violation of First Amendment.

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