Highways and interstates in Raleigh could look very different if a bill in the state Senate becomes law.
S.B. 183 would nullify ordinances in Raleigh and other communities that ban billboards on thoroughfares and local sections of interstate highways.
Under the bill, automatic changeable facing signs – billboards with panels or slats that move to allow a new advertisement to display – would be legal on “any interstate or primary highway system route” within the state, even if such structures are already illegal in local jurisdictions. The bill would also give billboard owners greater leeway in removing vegetation so their structures could be seen more easily.
The bill is sponsored by State Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown (R-6), who calls it “pro-business.”
“The billboard industry has been stymied for a while,” he said.
In particular, Brown feels that regulations on vegetation removal hamper these companies unnecessarily.
“To ask a business to invest millions of dollars in signs, then pass an ordinance to make the sign worthless, is not fair,” he said.
Local officials have expressed objections. City Councilman Thomas Crowder (District D) has begun a grassroots campaign to block passage of the legislation.
In an e-mail to his supporters, Crowder urged residents to contact legislators and Gov. Bev Purdue to prevent “trampling over the quality-of-life rights of local citizens and municipalities for the sole benefit of the billboard industry.”
Opponents of the bill pitch the issue as a battle for beauty, state character, and local power.
[pullquote]“NCAPA believes people come to North Carolina to see its natural beauty, not billboards,” Hitchings said. “The view from roadways is what affects people’s perceptions of a place. This is not helpful from the perspective of promoting statewide tourism.”[/pullquote]
“This legislation would override the ability of communities to make their own choices about the appearance of the community,” said Ben Hitchings, planning director for the town of Morrisville and former legislative chair of the North Carolina Chapter of the American Planning Association.
“Who gets to decide whether there are billboards in a community, residents or the billboard industry?” Hitchings said. “This is finally about local control, who gets to make the decisions.”
The NCAPA is part of a coalition of at least six other advocacy groups that opposes S.B. 183.
Only one state senator from Wake County, Josh Stein (D-16), returned The Record’s phone calls seeking perspectives on the bill.
“I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know all the details,” Stein said. “But I’m concerned about any legislation that takes away local control to preserve natural beauty. Any legislation that would increase the amount of trees cut would give me pause.”
“Boom, There’s a Sign”
The bill provides no review process for erecting new moveable billboards. That means billboards may go up without any community or government input, as long as billboard owners meet certain criteria: Billboards must stand at least 1,500 feet from each other, maintain a fixed message for at least eight seconds, and cannot display “flashing, intermittent, or moving lights, including animated or scrolling advertising.”
“[Billboard owners] can just do it,” said Mitchell Silver, planning director for the city of Raleigh. “They are entitled to do it, and you the public wouldn’t know. There would be no heads-up. Boom, there’s a sign.”
Brown struck a conciliatory note on the issue of local control, stating that he is willing to compromise as the bill goes through committee.
“There needs to be a give and take on this issue,” he said. “I don’t want to override particular ordinances in particular towns.”
Cutting down trees
The provision regarding vegetation removal perhaps has evoked the most ire in the bill’s opponents.
Sign owners can remove vegetation, including trees, up to 250 feet from the road. S.B. 183 would increase the cut zone to 400 feet.
In his e-mail, Crowder called this “the decimation of our tree-lined Beltline.”
“We do not want our roads and highways to emulate other states’,” he added.
Opponents deny that such altering of the landscape would benefit the state’s businesses.
“NCAPA believes people come to North Carolina to see its natural beauty, not billboards,” Hitchings said. “The view from roadways is what affects people’s perceptions of a place. This is not helpful from the perspective of promoting statewide tourism.”
Brown minimizes the impact of enlarging the cut zone.
“The bill says that if they remove vegetation, they would replace it with other vegetation,” he said. “Now, it would be smaller vegetation, but it would probably even improve the appearance of our roads.”
The senator also pointed out the benefits the billboard industry provides to the community.
“Most people don’t understand that the billboard companies give — I’ve heard as much as $5 million gratis — to charity, to nonprofits to advertise their causes,” he said.
How would Raleigh be affected?
For 40 years, Raleigh has banned billboards in all areas of the city not zoned for industrial use. A few billboards in place before the ban were allowed to remain.
S.B. 183 would allow billboard owners to convert all current billboards to electronic, changeable billboards. Less clear is whether the bill would allow companies to put up new electronic billboards in areas where all billboards are banned.
The term “primary highway system route” has officials looking to the North Carolina Department of Transportation for clarification. Hitchings of the NCAPA is seeking a comprehensive list of all roads that would be affected.
He said so far, he has determined that roads inside the Raleigh Beltline are not affected by the billboard legislation. The Beltline and other interstate highways fall under the bill’s purview.
The bill’s opponents have also raised questions about the safety of changeable billboards.
The NCDOT, which would issue permits and collect fees for new billboards, is conducting a study to determine whether changeable billboards result in driver distraction.
Stein and the bill’s opponents eagerly await the outcome of the study.
“As far as this increasing traffic accidents, I don’t buy that at all,” Brown said.
It is unclear what role municipalities would play with NCDOT in enforcing billboard rules.