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New tensions emerge in war over NC billboards

Traffic moves by an electronic billboard on Interstate 85 between Gastonia and Belmont near McAdenville. A bill would make it easier for billboard firms to convert signs into digital screens and would limit local governments’ ability to regulate billboards’ placement.
Traffic moves by an electronic billboard on Interstate 85 between Gastonia and Belmont near McAdenville. A bill would make it easier for billboard firms to convert signs into digital screens and would limit local governments’ ability to regulate billboards’ placement. mhames@charlotteobserver.com

For the third straight legislative session, environmental groups and local government advocates are fighting a measure sought by North Carolina’s billboard industry.

House Bill 304 would restrict the ability of local governments and state transportation officials to regulate the placement of outdoor advertising. It would make it easier for companies to convert billboards into digital screens and raise the cost of acquiring billboards by the Department of Transportation for purposes such as road widening.

Billboard companies also would get more leeway to cut trees, including native dogwoods and rosebuds.

Industry officials call it a jobs bill that would help billboard companies preserve what they have and allow advertisers to maintain access to consumers.

Critics call it an “unprecedented new giveaway” to the billboard industry.

“This bill takes control away from local governments and the DOT in making decisions about what our roadways look like, and hands that control over to the billboard industry,” said Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club. “(The bill) is bad for local control, bad for the scenic beauty of our state and bad for taxpayers. But it’s a terrific deal for the billboard industry.”

Scott Mooneyham of the N.C. League of Municipalities said the bill “would undermine local regulation of billboards, in both predictable and unpredictable ways.”

“The legislation is 13 pages of unclear and confusing provisions,” he said. “But several would have the effect of restricting local regulation regarding the size, placement, digital lighting of billboards.”

Paul Hickman, president of the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association, said the bill helps the industry protect assets by making it easier for companies to replace billboards, including with new digital boards. He called the legislation “extremely important” not just to the industry but the advertisers who rely on it.

“The objective of the industry is to maintain what we have, to keep the signs we have today,” Hickman said. “It also generates new capital investments that will create jobs. It’s a jobs impact bill.”

Rep. Mike Hager, a Rutherford County Republican and one of the bill’s chief sponsors, said “it’s a free-market issue.”

“(Billboards are) no different than radio or TV or newspapers,” he said.

The bill contains a statement of support for the industry, which advertises on roads across North Carolina and says “its visibility to the traveling public must be preserved and fostered.”

Critics say the bill would raise costs by, among other things, forcing the state to pay not only for the replacement cost of billboards but for the loss of “income generated by the rental of advertising space.”

“(The bill) also would require a new payment formula for when signs must be moved that would increase costs to taxpayers and further strain the state’s transportation budget,” Diggins said. “Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to bear the burden of compensating the billboard industry at a special higher rate.”

Billboard regulation has been controversial for years.

In 2012, the legislature expanded the industry’s right to clear land around its signs. In 2013, legislators gave billboard companies the right to replace aging billboards with new steel structures, even in areas not zoned for billboards.

The city of Charlotte has protested the 2012 state law that gave billboard companies more leeway to cut down trees and other vegetation in DOT-owned rights of way along highways.

Earlier this year, the city said the state had received 162 requests from billboard companies to cut down trees in the city. About 4,700 trees had been chopped down, the city said.

The law’s impact can be seen on area interstates, especially on Interstate 77 south of uptown. On that highway, large areas at the foot of billboards have been clear-cut.

In areas where trees have been removed, some native dogwoods remain. Those could be cut down under the proposed bill. Staff writer Steve Harrison contributed.

Morrill: 704-358-5059

Billboard proposals

HB 304 would:

▪ Add leeway to remove protected trees.

▪ Increase compensation for billboard acquisitions by the state.

▪ Make it easier to replace traditional billboards with electronic signs.

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