Senate bill could stop Raleigh’s billboard ban

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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.

A billboard on Capital Boulevard.

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.

A map of roads likely affected by S.B. 183. Click to view larger image.

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.

Traffic hazards?

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.

 

2 thoughts on “Senate bill could stop Raleigh’s billboard ban

  1. We don’t need big, bright billboards blinking thousands of ads a day for things our children don’t need to see.

    Local communities deserve the right to decide for themselves. Communities should be allowed to have some control over local ordinances, not some out-of-state billboard company.

    Industry will counter with talk about jobs and badly needed tax revenues. This is nothing but spin. Contrary to industry assertions, tax revenues from billboards are minuscule. And after all their talk about jobs, hiring a computer guy to change digital ads from afar doesn’t generate jobs. In fact, not needing as many road crews to change billboard signs would result in fewer jobs (not more).

    To be clear, electronic billboards are not good for the community.

    Once installed, electronic billboards would be very expensive for local governments to remove. Local taxpayers would have to pay the industry “just compensation” — which would include the value of the property plus the exponentially increased revenues they generate for their owners. Compensation for removal would amount to millions of taxpayer dollars while the billboards contribute little to your tax base.

    Tax dollars are needed to support schools, sheriff and other vital services — before risking scarce local resources for an out-of-state billboard company.

    While industry will talk about public service ads for nonprofits, you hardly see any in areas with digital billboards.

    Industry will talk about Silver and Amber alerts. But, police departments elsewhere are trying to opt out of these billboard alerts.

    The state already has its own series of official message signs for Amber Alerts. They’re designed to provide the information for motorists to react with the least possible distraction from their driving task, because they are designed in accordance with safe highway practices as mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. In contrast, the Amber Alerts on billboards have no official sanction, and often display useless and unnecessary information. As a result, according to Scenic Michigan, rather than communicating an important message in a non-distracting way, they require the motorist to take his/her eyes off the road for extended periods to read the material on the billboard.

    Nonprofits and local businesses that have digital billboard ads tend to reduce budgets for advertising in local newspapers and other media outlets. This will take additional monies out of the local economy and reduce support for area businesses. Billboards for national companies won’t contribute much to the state’s economy.

    To our neighbors across the state, industry is trying to quickly move its measure to stick electronic billboards, 50 feet in the sky over your communities. Speak up. Scenic America, http://www.scenic.org/billboards, is a great resource.

    This is not a partisan issue. Friends from across the political spectrum think it’s a terrible idea to have big TVs in the sky flashing 10,000 ads/day near our homes, schools, parks and places of worship.

    Get ready for some slick arguments from the billboard industry. They’ve already started talking about an industry study that claims their flashing billboards don’t distract drivers; don’t draw your eyes off the road. (We also have some nice oceanfront property to sell you near Boone.)

    Once the billboard industry opens the door, and gets all their digital billboards up, the door can’t be closed.

  2. “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.”

    Maybe people should be searching their smart phones while they are driving to see the directions, information, and exit numbers for their intended attraction or lodging. A bill board is less distraction than all these people that are still talking, texting, and staring at their GPS unit to see where they are NOT going. More accidents are caused by people using cell phones that seeing a billboard change every 8 seconds. We should ban all visual/audio media in a car. People singing, doing their makeup, reading books (yep, seen it!!), while driving should have their license taken away. They are the real distraction and will cause the accident that could take my life, yours, or someone you know.

    I work for the hospitality industry, and this tourism the NCAPA believes come to North Carolina to see its natural beauty, needs to listen to the people who actually come here. We receive many complaints that there are no signs, no billboards or larger markers that direct people to their perspective lodging. The number one complaint is that these cities do not have adequate lighting, do not “showcase” their attractions (RBC Center) with event signage or even lighting the streets that they are on. It is as if we don’t want people to find anything. Let’s just change the slogan for the Triangle to “Stay away, this is for our use only”.

    Billboards have been around a long time. This is nothing new and and when you consider that the state uses “electronic signs” to warn drivers of advance traffic issues, they are NOT used effectively. There should be more information displayed such as “TURN YOUR DAMN LIGHTS ON WHEN RAINING. ITS THE LAW!”…

    Sorry got a little off track. People are always going to be distracted when driving. Banning billboards is not the answer. People will find other ways to entertain themselves in their car when they get bored. Even falling asleep at the wheel when they have no stimulation of the brain.