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Bill that aims to ‘preserve’ billboard industry in NC goes too far, some say

A bill approved by the state Senate this week 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 Senate this week 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

The state Senate approved a House bill this week that changes the rules for relocating billboards along North Carolina highways, but there’s wide disagreement over exactly what the bill does.

Supporters of House Bill 645, including the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association, say it provides a way for billboard companies to relocate and preserve their signs 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.

The industry has lost about 1,000 billboards statewide in the last decade largely because of restrictions on moving them, said T.J. Bugbee, executive director of the outdoor advertising association. He said his members have about 7,500 billboards left.

“What we’re trying to do with this bill is preserve the industry,” Bugbee said in an interview. “We’re not asking to increase the number of signs in any jurisdiction. We’re just asking to maintain the inventory that we have.”

Opponents say the bill would grant billboard companies additional privileges for relocated signs, including raising the height to 50 feet, cutting trees on the public right-of-way that block the view and converting the billboards to digital displays. The group Scenic North Carolina estimates that the bill would allow 5,000 or more billboards to be raised in height and converted to digital.

“And this would be done regardless of any local ordinances that apply to relocation,” said Dale McKeel, the group’s president. McKeel said some communities want to be able to regulate or prohibit the bright, ever-changing displays of digital billboards.

Bugbee insists the bill doesn’t address digital billboards. He says the bill doesn’t change a 2013 law that allows the “modernization” of existing signs without the involvement of local governments, but adds that it’s not clear whether that law allows an existing billboard to be converted to digital.

“We want to have a debate about digital in the future, but not in this bill,” he said.

Local control

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat from Durham, proposed amending the bill Tuesday to prevent the conversion of signs to digital for three years, to give the legislature time to address the issue separately. Woodard also moved to strike language that allows companies to move their signs regardless of local ordinances.

Both amendments failed.

“My fundamental problem with the bill is that it undermines local control,” he said in an interview. “It takes away the ability — primarily for cities and towns but also counties — to be able to have any say in the relocation of these billboards.”

The version of the bill approved by the House in early May would have made clear that billboard companies could not convert an existing sign into a digital one, but that provision was stripped out in the Senate Transportation Committee. Because of that and other changes, the House must approve the bill again.

McKeel and other critics say the bill’s impacts are not readily apparent. The bill has been amended several times since it was introduced in April but remains seven pages long. All that carefully worded language obscures the bill’s meaning, says Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club.

“This bill has many places where you could say, ‘But wouldn’t this allow…?” Diggins said. “And who do you go to for the definitive answer, other than the courts?”

Bugbee says the numerous amendments were the result of the industry trying to work with various interest groups to win their support. For example, the bill originally allowed billboards taken by eminent domain to be relocated to a suitably zoned property anywhere in the same city or county; he said that was amended to restrict the move to within two miles, at the urging of the N.C. League of Municipalities.

The league, which represents cities and towns across the state, is not opposing the bill in part because of changes made along the way, said spokesman Scott Mooneyham.

“If we had our druthers we would not see this legislation,” Mooneyham said in an interview. “As this bill was filed, we came to the conclusion that there was a high probability that a bill would pass this year. So at that point, it became about making the bill as palatable as possible, and we think we’ve done that.”

Moving a billboard

McKeel said the bill has been improved, but Scenic North Carolina remains opposed.

“There were a lot of provisions in the bill that have been taken out that would have been more detrimental to the scenic beauty of the state,” he said. “But nonetheless, the biggest concern with this is the conversion to digital and the raising of the height and replacing the standards of local government with a statewide standard.”

The bill allows for the relocation of billboards under two circumstances. The first affects signs on property taken by eminent domain, such as when the NCDOT widens a highway or builds a sound wall. Bugbee said that in the last three years the association’s members lost 49 billboards to eminent domain that could have been replaced if this bill was law.

The bill also includes a provision that lets a billboard company move any sign to another spot on the same property or within 250 feet of it, as long as it meets zoning and other requirements. Bugbee said that would allow a company to relocate a billboard if the property owner wanted to develop or subdivide and sell the spot where it currently stands.

“In some cities, we can’t do that,” he said.

The bill would limit these discretionary moves to once every 10 years.

The original versions of the House bill and a companion bill in the Senate included language in which the General Assembly endorsed outdoor advertising as “an important and distinct medium of communication” and “declares it to be in the public interest that outdoor advertising signs be erected, maintained, and clearly visible along the highways in this State.... .” It also said the General Assembly recognizes that “the needs of the outdoor advertisers must be balanced against the beautification of the State.”

All of that language was stripped out of the bill in the Senate.

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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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