Billboard bills would mar NC’s beauty

In this Feb. 8, 2013 photo, commuters on Santa Monica Boulevard on the Westside of Los Angeles see a digital billboard displaying a large “wanted” poster.
In this Feb. 8, 2013 photo, commuters on Santa Monica Boulevard on the Westside of Los Angeles see a digital billboard displaying a large “wanted” poster. AP

It’s TV on a stick. That’s how detractors usually describe digital billboards, but really, the phrase is too generous. You can turn off your TV. You don’t have that kind of control over a digital billboard. If you drive a public road where digital billboards are allowed, you are forced to have it in your peripheral vision. Some drivers find it nearly impossible not to glance at glowing, hi-resolution signs with ads changing every six seconds.

Many of North Carolina’s cities have avoided the blight of digital billboards by adopting local regulations restricting them - both because they’re painfully ugly and because they’re designed to take drivers’ eyes off the road. But now our freedom from those distracting eyesores is in danger.

The billboard industry is back for more from the NC General Assembly. Legislators are considering several new billboard bills this session that could have significant detrimental impacts on North Carolina’s roads and highways (HB 173, HB 578, HB 579, HB 580, and HB 581). HB 581 is before the Finance Committee.

The provisions being considered would eliminate local control over digital billboards and allow up to 10 digital billboards per mile. Recent studies have shown that digital billboards are not just distracting, they are dangerous. The studies from the University of Alabama showed that over half of drivers under 20 were likely to take a long glance at digital billboards, while a third of drivers over 65 were likely to slow down to look at the digital billboards.

Even if the digital billboard provisions were removed, these bills are bad for North Carolina’s scenic beauty. Other provisions would remove local control over billboard height, allow the cutting of state-owned trees in front of billboards and allow billboards to be relocated from one part of the community to another, even if local ordinances currently prohibit it.

And that’s not all. These proposed provisions would dramatically increase the amount of money that state and local governments would have to pay to billboard owners if public works projects like schools or highway construction required condemnation or relocation of billboards, effectively providing a taxpayer subsidized bailout of the billboard industry.

The financial impacts from these changes could be significant. A similar change to the law in Minnesota forced the state to pay Clear Channel $4 million to eliminate four billboards as part of a bridge reconstruction project. What’s worse, the removal of one digital billboard for the same project required Minnesota taxpayers to fork over an additional $4.3 million to the billboard company. Our legislative leaders have raked in political contributions from this industry for years, but have not even bothered to study the costs of these bills before running them through.

One of North Carolina’s top regional planning achievements has been ensuring that I-40 promotes a positive regional image with no billboards and lots of landscaping. Except for a few near S. Saunders Street in Raleigh, there are no billboards on I-40 between I-85 in Orange County and Benson in Johnston County, a distance of more than 60 miles. In many other places, the journey from the airport to the city is almost always a billboard alley, but not in the Triangle.

HB 581 would threaten our regional image by overriding local ordinances and allowing billboards to be placed on I-40. The bill allows a billboard located in one part of a jurisdiction to be relocated to another part of the jurisdiction. For instance, a billboard on US 70 in Durham, US 1 in Raleigh, or I-95 in Johnston County could be moved to a billboard-free section of I-40. Our roads and highways serve as the front porch of our state. North Carolina’s natural beauty is one of our greatest assets; don’t let the General Assembly sell out our state’s roadways to support a struggling billboard industry. Our elected representatives should know better than to put TVs out on our state’s front porch.

Ryke Longest is a member of the Board of Directors of Scenic America and the former chair of its Legal Committee. Longest is also a Clinical Professor of Law at Duke School of Law.