Sign Owner's due Process Claim Is 20 Years Too Late, Court Rules

An advertising company should have challenged Caltrans' mid-1970s cancellation of billboard permits many years ago, the First District Court of Appeal ruled in March. The court rejected the company's attempt to revive the permits on grounds that the permits were not properly canceled in the first place. Richard Traverso, who runs Adco Outdoor Advertising, is the successor in interest to four billboards along Highway 101 in San Mateo County. Permits had been awarded for the signs between the 1930s and 1972, but Caltrans canceled the permits during the mid-1970s. In November 1997, Traverso requested renewal of the one the permits, but Caltrans did not respond. He soon filed a lawsuit seeking to force Caltrans to renew all four permits, or to recover damages for inverse condemnation. (Traverso, in fact, filed about 20 lawsuits against Caltrans at the end of 1997 over old billboard permits.) San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Rosemary Pfeiffer dismissed this lawsuit, and the First District, Division Four, upheld that decision. At issue was the statute of limitations to challenge Caltrans decisions from the 1970s, the court held. Traverso argued that he was suing only over Caltrans' refusal to renew the permits in 1997, and that he was not seeking damages extending back to the earlier permit revocations. But the appellate court did not buy this argument. "No matter how Traverso tries to slice it, however, this case involves setting aside permit revocations that occurred over 25 years ago," Justice Laurence Kay wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel. "[W]hile Traverso attempts to frame the issue in terms of Caltrans's alleged duty to renew or reissue the permits in 1997, he must overturn the original permit revocations." Traverso argued that because the permits were canceled without due process, the revocation never actually occurred. At worst, he argued, the permits have expired but are still renewable. Again, the court said no. Even if Traverso's predecessors in interest were wronged by the Caltrans action, the time to contest the decision was within three to five years, depending upon the claim, the court held. The people who owned the billboards prior to Traverso could have raised the due process claims at the proper time, the court held. "The permits were revoked as a matter of fact as alleged in the complaint, and they were revoked as a matter of law when the time for contesting the revocations passed," Kay wrote. There is no basis, the court continued, for Traverso's alternative argument that the permits expired and he has a right to have them reinstated. "If that were the rule, then there would be no statute of limitations for wrongful takings," Kay wrote. The only way to get past the statute of limitations is if the agency went well beyond its fundamental jurisdiction, the court held. In this case, "Caltrans unquestionably has the power to revoke billboard permits," the court ruled. The Case: Richard Traverso v. Department of Transportation, No. A087456, 01 C.D.O.S. 2278, filed March 20, 2001. The Lawyers: For Traverso: Terry Traktman, (707) 769-3090. For Caltrans: Brelend Gowan, deputy chief counsel, (916) 654-2630.