Politics & Government

Gov. Cooper vetoes bill that would have let billboard owners bypass local rules

A bill vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday would have allowed 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 vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday would have allowed 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

Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed a bill that would have made it easier for billboard companies to move and upgrade their signs even if local regulations forbid it.

House Bill 645 would have allowed 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.

The bill also would have allowed the cutting of trees in the public right-of-way that block the view of the relocated sign. Cooper cited that provision when he announced the veto Thursday afternoon.

“Protecting the beauty and environment of North Carolina should be a top priority, but this legislation authorizes cutting down trees and other clearing work along roadways without the consent of nearby communities,” he said in a statement. “Local governments should have more of a say in where their communities allow billboards.”

The billboard industry said the bill was needed to help it survive. The N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association says the industry has lost about 1,000 billboards statewide in the last decade largely because of restrictions on moving them. The association issued a statement Thursday assailing the veto as “misguided,” and said it put the state Department of Transportation in a position of having to buy out billboard owners rather than allowing them to move their signs.

“This bipartisan legislation, which is a reasonable, responsible solution for the limited relocation of existing billboards, is not only pro-business and pro-property rights, but also saves millions of dollars for the taxpayers of North Carolina,” the association’s executive director, T.J. Bugbee, said in the statement.

The bill was amended several times in both the House and Senate over several months. The N.C. League of Municipalities, which represents cities and towns across the state, dropped its opposition because of some of those changes.

But environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Scenic North Carolina, continued to object, saying the bill would allow thousands of billboard to be converted to digital displays over the objections of local governments.

It’s not clear whether supporters of the bill could muster enough votes in the General Assembly to override Cooper’s veto. The final version of the bill passed the Senate 27-17, but the vote was much closer in the House, which approved it 60-54, short of the 60% margin that would be needed to override the veto.

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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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