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House approves bill that empowers NC billboard owners; its fate rests with Gov. Cooper

A bill approved by the state House on Wednesday would allow the owner of this billboard along the Raleigh Beltline to move it up to two miles away if the N,C. Department of Transportation takes the property during the upcoming widening of the highway.
A bill approved by the state House on Wednesday would allow the owner of this billboard along the Raleigh Beltline to move it up to two miles away if the N,C. Department of Transportation takes the property during the upcoming widening of the highway. rstradling@newsobserver.com

A bill that gives billboard companies more leeway to move and upgrade their signs along the state’s highways narrowly passed the House on Wednesday, though it’s not clear whether Gov. Roy Cooper will let it become law.

House Bill 645 would allow companies to relocate and preserve their billboards when the government takes the underlying property through eminent domain or when the landowner decides it no longer wants the sign where it is. The bill prevents local governments from blocking the move, as long as the owners abide by zoning and other conditions spelled out in the bill.

After a brief debate, the House voted 60-54 in favor of the bill, a margin that would not overcome a veto by the governor. Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County, said on the floor of the House that he had been “told directly that the governor’s office thinks it’s a bad bill,” though he hadn’t been told whether Cooper would veto it.

A spokesman for Cooper said late Tuesday only that he will review the legislation before making a decision.

Supporters of the bill, including the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association, say it’s needed help preserve the billboard industry, which the association says has lost about 1,000 billboards statewide in the last decade largely because of restrictions on moving them.

Opponents say the bill goes too far, by circumventing local sign regulations and by allowing billboard owners to cut trees that block the view of relocated signs.

“This bill’s going to protect the interests of the billboard industry at the expense of trees, local government authority and the scenic beauty of our state,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat from Guilford County.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Jason Saine of Lincoln County, said the bill had been “watered down” before the House approved it in early May, and was then watered down again in the Senate, where it passed 27-17 late last month. Saine said those changes were made to win over critics, and noted that the N.C. League of Municipalities is not opposing it.

“It’s time to pull the lever on this one and get it out of the House,” he said before the vote.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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