Bill weakens cities' regulatory power over highway billboards

afrank@newsobserver.comJuly 11, 2013 

  • Other provisions in Senate Bill 112

    The regulatory changes in Senate Bill 112 aren’t limited to billboards. Here are a few other notable provisions:

    • Repeals a law that allows residents to protest local governments’ zoning decisions

    • Increases restrictions on cities’ and counties’ authority to adopt ordinances that are not consistent with state or federal law that applies to them

    • Allows bed-and-breakfast establishments to serve more than just breakfast

    • Makes potential child care agency employees get background checks

— Sweeping regulatory reform – billed by sponsors as job creation – drew criticism Thursday for a provision that would lessen municipalities’ independence when it comes to billboard regulation.

During a lengthy House debate over the omnibus bill, Senate Bill 112, several amendments were aimed at softening or deleting the billboard section of the bill, but most failed. The bill passed with few changes in an 83-29 vote. It will be sent back to the Senate. Sponsors said the bill, which covers agriculture, natural resources and the environment, aims to make regulation less burdensome and costly.

Rep. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat, advocated for deleting the billboard provisions, saying that they would give even more leeway to the outdoor advertising industry than previous bills.

“I know that Durham as a whole feels that we want to control our appearance and our sense of place,” said Shelly Green, president of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau and secretary of Scenic North Carolina. “And now the state has taken that away from us.”

The bill also has a provision that builds on legislation that passed last session which allows tree trimming around billboards near highways. The current bill allows for vegetation to be trimmed around billboards that are placed along on and off ramps.

Rep. Timothy Moffitt, an Asheville Republican, said that the bill’s language is meant to clarify previous billboard legislation that increased the amount of vegetation the outdoor advertising industry could remove.

“This bill addresses the modernization of existing billboards,” Moffitt said. But the bill wouldn’t increase the amount of billboards in North Carolina, he said. It would merely allow billboard owners to upgrade their signs when they are falling into disrepair – a property rights issue, not pro-industry, he argued. It also bars local governments from restricting the repair or reconstruction of outdoor advertising.

Currently, if a sign falls apart, it merely ceases to exist and the spot it was placed in is reopened, said Paul Meyer, the League of Municipalities’ director of governmental affairs. Anti-billboard parties find the current practice satisfactory because it results in fewer billboards, and gives municipalities the freedom to choose. If a city wants to change its appearance, becoming less centered on street advertising, it may do so by allowing signs to decompose. Meyer said he found the provision overly prohibitive.

“It’s about whether a local community should be able to decide what their city is like,” he said.

Ultimately, the argument outside the legislature comes down to pro-billboard and anti-billboard.

Advocates like Ben Hitchings, president of the N.C. Chapter of the American Planning Association, don’t think signs should be permanent. Hitchings and other parties concerned with the beauty of North Carolina roadways, such as the Sierra Club and Scenic North Carolina, call it the “billboards forever bill.”

“I think it’s very important especially in the new economy where appearance matters in terms of attracting quality growth to a community,” Hitchings said. “A number of communities had made a decision to try to present themselves as beautifully as they can, and views from the public roadways can make what people think of a community.”

Paul Hickman, president of the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association, said the bill will solve a major problem for billboard owners who, in some cases, aren’t allowed to update their signs. Some municipalities have left the industry in a “stagnant position,” he said.

“Would you rather have a simpler, cleaner monopole sign, or the old one,” he said. “It’s a major aesthetic improvement.”

The bill’s effects were dampened in two main ways Thursday evening. Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican, pointed out that some language had “inadvertently done away with all billboard regulations of all types,” which was a major concern of advocates, so his amendment restricted the bill’s scope to replacing dilapidated signs. Rep. Paul Stam, a Republican from Apex, amended the bill with a “grandfather” clause: The billboard regulations would only apply to restrictions made after the passage of the bill.

Frank: 919-829-4870

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