Local billboard rules targeted in House bills

Posted April 20, 2017 7:48 p.m. EDT
Updated April 21, 2017 6:24 p.m. EDT

— A pair of measures backed by state House leaders would supersede some local ordinances restricting the size and location of billboards and dramatically increase compensation for billboard owners who lose locations. State and local officials are opposing the measures.

House Bill 580, sponsored by House Rules Chairman Rep. David Lewis,R-Harnett, would make it easier for a billboard owner to find a new location for a billboard that has to be relocated due to road construction or development. The owner could basically pick a new location as long as it's zoned the same as the old one.

"There are times when the billboard industry is unable to relocate its business assets when they’re threatened by roads or development," Lewis said. "The intent of this bill is to take private property, which is owned by private business, which is condemned for the public use of building roads, and allow them to relocate and be able to use it."

As it was heard in the House State and Local Government II Committee, the proposal would also preempt local bans on billboards on primary roads in commercial or industrial areas, and it would override local restrictions on the size of billboards going back to 2014, which critics pointed out could affect ongoing disputes or litigation.

Craig Justus, representing billboard owners as the North Carolina Outdoor Advertising Association, said the business needs more protection from local officials who don't want to allow relocation.

"We lose 1 percent of our assets every year – 30 percent over 30 years," Justus told the committee, "primarily because of development pressure."

But critics warned that, as written, the bill would allow billboards to proliferate, not just maintain their numbers.

"We believe that local governments should retain control of the placement of billboards in their community," Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny, president of the North Carolina League of Municipalities, told lawmakers. "We regulate other signage in our community."

House Bill 579, also sponsored by Lewis, would increase what billboard owners must be paid if their billboards are condemned and not relocated. Under current law, they're worth the cost of their materials, but the proposal would mean local and state officials would have to pay the "fair market value" of their business for years into the future.

Both Matheny and Scott Capps with the state Department of Transportation warned that the change would result in sharp increases in cost to taxpayers.

In right-of-way condemnation proceedings, Capps told lawmakers, House Bill 579 "would set a precedent for other businesses where we don’t just have to pay for the brick and mortar but for the value of the business."

Additionally, Capps warned that the change would violate rules for federal funds, so the state's Highway Trust Fund would bear the full increase in reimbursement cost, and that the likely legal battles over each billboard's future fair market value would also delay project deadlines.

A similar "fair compensation" law was passed in 2004 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Mike Easley. In a case under that law, the city of Greensboro would have had to pay more than $250,000 to remove a single billboard, according to the League of Municipalities.

"I know there are a lot of folks who don’t like billboards," countered Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan. "What we’re trying to do here is preserve a very, very important business in this state, a small business."

Both measures passed the committee and are scheduled for a House floor vote next week.