Behind the Bill: S183, Billboard Changes

A measure expected in Senate Judiciary Committee next week would open the door to more billboards in North Carolina.

Posted Updated

Laura Leslie

A measure expected in Senate Judiciary next week would open the door to a lot more billboards in North Carolina. The League of Municipalities and other groups are working with the outdoor advertising industry on a compromise, but it's not clear just how much middle ground they'll find. 

Senate Bill 183 would let billboard owners cut down more trees and vegetation 400 feet around signs to make the signs more visible. Under current law, it's 250 feet. 

"In the Southeast, in the South, it is the most stringent rule," said Paul Hickman, manager of Fairway Outdoor Advertising. "In most states, it's 500 feet or more."

Sign owners would still have to get permits to cut down trees on the right of way. And under the bill, they'd pay higher fees for the privilege – money that would go back into the beautification fund at the state Department of Transportation for more trees and flowers somewhere else.

The bill would let sign owners turn existing signs into digital billboards. Cities would no longer have a say in the matter – the law would overrule local ordinances.

Local governments don't like that idea. Durham and Raleigh city councils have signed resolutions against it. The NC Association of County Commissioners, the Metropolitan Mayors coalition, and the League of Municipalities are all opposed, too.

Kelli Kukura directs government relations for the League of Municipalities. "We really want to be sure that we're doing what our communities and citizens want as it relates to billboards, and keeping it under local control is best," Kukura said.  

Sign owners say they don't understand cities' resistance to digital billboards. They say every industry is changing with technology. Why should theirs be different? 

Hickman says local officials could still turn down permits for new billboards - they just couldn't weigh in on changing existing billboards to digital. "We only would be modernizing our existing infrastructure. It's the same thing with any other business that's allowed to modernize their infrastructure. We don't know of another business that can't."

The bill would also allow more signs in less space on interstates and federal roads. Billboard owners could put up seven flashing signs per mile, if they wanted. And it makes it harder for the DOT to deny permits for new billboards.  The DOT says it's concerned about the proposal.

Hickman says Senate Bill 183 is needed because cities and counties have different ordinances, and often interpret state rules differently. He says his industry creates jobs, and it ought to be treated fairly. 

"There are groups that would like to see outdoor advertising eliminated completely," he said. "I mean, I've actually been told by some elected officials that they're okay if my business doesn't make it." 

Kukura insists local governments are trying to be reasonable about billboards. "What we don't want to see, though, are huge swaths of trees removed, significant amounts of vegetation removed across our communities, as well as the digital flashing billboards. It's just not something any of us want for the aesthetics and quality of life of our communities." 

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