Not only will billboard companies be able to cut down many more trees than they could before a new law loosened restrictions, under newly approved rules taking effect in March they won't have to replace them, either.
Environmentalists and others fear thousands of roadside trees that are decades old will be lost as a result. "We don't think the state legislature should give away the public's trees, particularly when the public is not getting anything in return," Molly Diggins, executive director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, said Tuesday. "This is being done in the name of regulatory reform, but the legislature has gone too far. This is a giveaway to the billboard industry."
The General Assembly approved a bill expanding the clear-cutting zone around billboards in June. It went into effect in October but, like many laws, it required the appropriate state agency to come up with rules to implement it. The state Rules Review Commission approved temporary rules last week. Permanent rules take as long as a year to go into effect so that broad interests can be considered. But the General Assembly, in passing the law last summer, required the state Department of Transportation to develop temporary rules on billboards that would go into effect much quicker.
That was just fine with the billboard industry, which helped write the legislation, steered it through the General Assembly and guided it through the rules process. But when the Department of Transportation proposed a rule requiring companies replant if they clear-cut 60 percent or more of the area they're permitted to cut, the industry cried foul.
"This became law over three months ago," Robert Sykes of Capital Outdoor Advertising, said at a public hearing in December. "As simple as the process was when this was passed, it continues to be massaged into an over-complicated train wreck for all involved."
Sykes was one of several industry representatives who spoke adamantly at the hearing. Ultimately, they persuaded state staff that DOT didn't have the authority under the new law to impose a mandatory replanting requirement.
The legislation received little public attention after its most controversial provision - allowing electronic billboards regardless of whether local communities wanted to ban them - was dropped after city and county officials objected.
Opponents riled up
But now that the industry has quashed the replanting regulation and trees could begin to fall in March, opponents have sounded alarms.
"Scenic North Carolina is at a complete loss to see what the hurry is to issue permits," said Ryke Longest, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University, which agreed to represent the beautification organization before the rules commission. "We're considering all our options, including litigation."
The billboard law was one of several regulatory reform issues the Republican legislature approved last year, often rescuing bills that the Democrats had kept from succeeding for many years. But the bill encountered turbulence, not just over the digital billboard provision and not just from Democrats.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from the mountain county of Henderson, amended the bill to give local governments the authority to regulate the signs and provide more protection for trees . The House overwhelmingly voted to approve McGrady's version. But the bill went to a conference committee of House and Senate members because the Senate didn't go along with the changes. There, most of his language was stripped out.
"I got about 20 percent of what I had in my original bill," McGrady said.
McGrady voted for the conference report, saying at least some of his concerns were addressed, but he voted against the bill on the floor. Now, McGrady says he is wary of what's to come.
He said he has seen trees already marked for removal around billboards on Interstate 26 in Henderson County.
No one can say for certain how many more trees will end up being cut down as a result of the new law. There are about 8,000 billboards in the state now and an average of 240 permits issued each year.
'Hard to predict'
The Department of Transportation calculated the potential economic impact at $12 million to $15 million for the loss of 200,000 trees over a five-year period, but says that is based on the market value of trees and how many removal permits have been issued in the past.
Jon Nance, DOT's chief engineer, said that has no relation to how many trees billboard owners will cut under new rules.
"It's hard to predict how many signs, how quickly, how big the tree sizes," Nance said. "We do know that trees will be cut that have not been cut since the '80s."
Diggins of the Sierra Club hopes the industry can be restrained through the permanent rule process. In the meantime, she isn't optimistic about the fate of roadside trees.
"Whatever the real number is, we are assuming that the cutting will occur very quickly, both due to pent-up demand from the industry, but also a need to stay ahead of the regulatory process."
Neither Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County who sponsored the bill, nor an industry representative could be reached for comment this week. But the concerns they expressed in the December public hearing said the law, before the Department of Transportation began tweaking the rules, helped small businesses and promoted tourism.
Craig Justus, an attorney for the billboard industry association, said forcing companies to replant trees would be ludicrous in places were trees are sparse or nonexistent, such as along stretches of Interstate 40 between Raleigh and Wilmington.
Tony Adams, executive director of the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association, said he and Justus helped when the bill was drafted and they were certain that Brown intended for replanting to be an option not a requirement.