The state Court of Appeals has largely sided with Tucson in its fight to force removal of more than 170 billboards.
In a unanimous decision, the judges rejected arguments by billboard advertising firm Clear Channel Outdoor that the city had waited too long to begin legal proceedings over what it says are illegally erected or altered billboards. They also rebuffed arguments that a 1980 change in the city sign code forbade Tucson from going after billboards already in place before that date.
But the city's victory was not complete. The court did find a couple of instances in which Clear Channel should be allowed to alter its signs rather than be forced to remove them.
Despite that, City Attorney Mike Rankin said the ruling would probably lead to the eventual removal of the majority of disputed billboards. But Rankin acknowledged the decision is unlikely to be the last word.
The city and Clear Channel have been fighting over the signs for 20 years, including several prior trips to appellate courts.
The company even persuaded the Legislature to intercede three years ago to bar Tucson from removing the signs, though that move was blocked with a veto by Gov. Janet Napolitano.
Calls to the lawyer representing Clear Channel were not returned.
Tucson filed the lawsuit eight years ago against Eller Media, which owned the signs at the time, with a separate count of violating the city's sign code for each billboard.
Central to the legal battle is whether Tucson waited too long to try to have the billboards removed.
Before 2000, cities were legally entitled to go after illegally erected billboards at any time.
That year, after Tucson filed suit, industry lobbyists persuaded the Legislature to retroactively require cities to issue citations for sign law violations "within two years after discovering the violation."
In the current appeal, attorneys for Clear Channel argued the clock for Tucson to act started running once the city knew of a violation or, at the very least, should have known the facts underlying the violation if city employees had been reasonably diligent. They noted the disputed billboards had been around for years before the city sued.
But Judge Joseph Howard, writing for the appellate court, said the plain language of the law means that the time limit did not start until city officials actually determined the billboards did, in fact, violate the sign code.