The ball is back in the court of Bench Billboard Co.
In the ongoing dispute between Columbus and the Cincinnati-based advertising company over the placement of what are sometimes called "bus benches," the latest salvo was fired May 24 by Senior Assistant City Attorney Wendi S. Bootes.
A response is forthcoming, according to the attorney representing Bench Billboard Co.
Bootes was responding to a May 8 communication from an attorney representing Bench Billboard Co. in which he said a city-imposed deadline of May 14 for the removal of advertising benches not authorized by a 1989 appeals court ruling was "unrealistic."
The senior assistant city attorney saw Eric C. Holzapfel's "unrealistic" and raised it an "absurdity."
"A reading of the case in a way that would prohibit the city from removing unpermitted benches in the city's rights-of-way would result in an absurdity," Bootes wrote.
Resident complaints about the proliferation of the advertising benches -- notably in the Northland area, where Dave Paul, chairman of the community council's development committee, recently said, "they just move around like roaches" -- resulted in an April 30 letter to Bench Billboard Co. imposing the deadline for removing benches not covered by the 29-year-old appeals court decision.
The city lost the original 1986 lawsuit by Bench Billboard Co. over municipal employees removing the firm's property and the 1989 appeal, but the latter ruling limited bench placements to the approximately 266 locations for which building permits were issued between 1972-75.
Frank D. Williams, administrator for the city's Division of Infrastructure Management, wrote April 30 that city officials had "recently received a number of complaints about new sign benches illegally located within the city's right-of-way ... "
A lengthy list was attached.
"BBC is most interested in continuing to work with the city of Columbus by providing benches for the public to use at no cost to the city. However, your letter is problematic in that it fails to specifically address the location or locations that are the subject of the 'complaints.' If the city is expecting BBC to survey all of the locations referenced in the attachment to your letter which may, or may not, fully include all of BBC's/ADC's legal locations, the timeline set forth in your letter is totally unrealistic."
In her response, Bootes stated that Department of Public Service officials were proposing a meeting with Bench Billboard executives to "agree to approximately 266 locations for your client's billboard benches so that there is no confusion as the locations of the original permitted benches.
"If your client is unwilling to agree to a list of locations, (the service department) will have no choice but to assume that the bench locations on the previously attached list are acceptable," she added. "Any benches not in those permitted locations will be removed by (the department), as authorized by City Code Title 9.
"By our best estimate at this time, there are over 300 unpermitted benches in the city of Columbus right-of-way. (The department) receives complaints about these benches on a daily basis by citizens and other users of the (right-of-way), such as COTA."
Bootes concluded by proposing that the meeting take place within two weeks of her letter.
In an interview May 31, Holzapfel said his client has been on vacation, which delayed responding to the letter from Bootes.
"We are certainly interested in cooperating with the city and would like to at some point have a meeting," Holzapfel said. "I have also dictated a response that I hope would move the ball down the field while my client was out of town ... which I hope to send out here in the next day or two."
In it, the Bench Billboard lawyer said, he is asking for specifics about the locations that are subject of residents' complaints, while both parties seek to come up with a "global resolution."
"We'll want to come together on this issue," Holzapfel said.
He added he and his client are confused about the list of sites included in the May 8 letter from Williams, which doesn't appear to be in the appeals court ruling.
"We're trying to digest that list ... so in my response to Wendi, I said basically we don't know where that came from, but we do want to work this out," Holzapfel said. "We are unable at this point to confirm or reject the city's list."