Wichita The city of Wichita wrongly told Bressler Kelso Outdoor it didn't need a permit to put billboards in railroad right-of-way spaces, and now competitors are demanding the city fix its mistake.
"They were given the wrong information," said city attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who said last week he's looking for a way to resolve the problem.
Adding to the problem is the city's acceptance of free space on BKO's billboards to advertise its "Wichita: Great People, Great Companies, Great City!" campaign.
"That decision just helped validate a situation that we feel is illegal and unacceptable," said Ron Blue, general manager of competing Clear Channel Outdoor.
BKO is a Florida-based company that came to the Wichita market last year at the invitation of the Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad, which sought extra revenue by leasing its right-of-way for billboards.
BKO's billboards, there are three installed out of an initial plan for 16, don't meet city requirements on height or spacing.
According to the city, the signs are too tall by an estimated 15 to 20 feet.
Also, the billboard on Kellogg Drive is in an area that the city said already has a full capacity of signs, according to the sign code.
And the Zoo Boulevard sign is improperly zoned.
BKO quit installing the remaining billboards after competitors complained and the city realized its mistake. "Clearly, we haven't done anything wrong," said David Bressler, BKO managing partner. "We came and did exactly what the city told us we can do."
The result, said John Lay, president of George Lay Signs Inc., is "they were able to gain a competitive advantage by not following the rules that everyone else has had to follow for years."
Rebenstorf acknowledged that some could question whether there was a quid pro quo when the city accepted free advertising on BKO's billboards.
"I see where somebody could come up with that, but I don't think the facts show that at all," Rebenstorf said.
In a March 2003 letter, city neighborhood inspector Pat Longwell told a railroad representative that "no sign permit from the city of Wichita is required if a billboard is to be located on railroad (right-of-way space) or property solely owned by the railroad."
Kurt Schroeder, superintendent of central inspection, said Longwell made the mistake based on misinformation.
After Longwell sent the March letter, the railroad invited BKO to build the billboards. BKO in June received a similar letter from the city about not needing a permit.
BKO officials said they spent about $300,000 on the three billboards.
Lay said that if the city doesn't make BKO change its signs, he might want approval to make changes to his signs to better compete with BKO.
Bressler said he doesn't expect to have to remove his signs, but if he does, he might refer the matter to his lawyer.
"The city is trying to accommodate the BKO, and they're trying to accommodate the complainers," Mayor Carlos Mayans said of Clear Channel and Lay Signs. Clear Channel has about 80 percent of the billboards in the Wichita area.