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Sign here, sign there 

by League Director of Public Affairs Scott Mooneyham

For about as long as anyone can remember, there has been tension over billboards at the North Carolina General Assembly, and the battles over their regulation have not been particularly partisan. More than a decade ago, a former Republican legislator from Wilmington, the owner of a trucking company, referred to the giant signs along roadways as “visual pollution.” Around the same time, a Democratic-controlled legislature eventually allowed a billboard moratorium along Interstate 40 to expire, even as that Wilmington-area legislator and others protested. 

That years-long battle over a billboard moratorium along eastern stretches of I-40 is just one of the many legislative twists and turns involving the signs. In 1993, legislators approved the extension of another billboard moratorium, this one involving stretches of highway in the North Carolina mountains in Buncombe and Surry counties. Mysteriously, legislative leaders – in what they said was an inadvertent action – failed to sign the bill before adjourning, meaning it was not ratified. The moratorium lapsed for 10 months before legislators, upon their return to Raleigh the following May, quickly saw to it that the bill was ratified. 

In 2004, then-Gov. Mike Easley vetoed a bill that could have forced local governments to repay billboard owners five times the annual revenue of one of the signs if it were condemned as part of a revitalization project. In pulling out his red veto stamp, Easley called the legislation unfair and told legislators to find a more reasonable compensation formula. At the time, opponents of the bill pointed to the possibility that the City of Greensboro, which lacked a local ordinance that would have been grandfathered under the bill, could be forced to pay as much as $240,000 to remove a typical billboard with a tax value of $28,000. 

More recently, in 2011, a fight ensued over a bill that initially would have stripped away a significant amount of local control of billboards. Rep. Chuck McGrady (see this edition’s legislative profile, A Path Less Traveled, (pp. 23-27) fought that bill, and with House backing, the compromise that eventually passed primarily affected cities by widening the vegetation removal zones around billboards on interstates within cities and on interstates and primary highways in city extraterritorial jurisdictions. A provision preempting local ordinances affecting the characteristics of the signs was dropped. 

Just last year, a new battle over billboards appeared possible when legislation was filed that would have gutted local control of billboards, allowing them to be moved, enlarged or converted to digital displays regardless of a municipality’s ordinance. And once again, the industry was looking for higher compensation when a billboard was condemned. 

Through all of these legislative fights, defenders of billboards have pointed to them as a valuable part of the state’s advertising industry, helping guide travelers to retail businesses. Meanwhile, the League and municipal officials have continued to make the case that local control is necessary to prevent billboards from being erected in places that could harm the character of a neighborhood, a section of town or even an entire municipality. McGrady notes that the Village of Flat Rock in Henderson County – the site of the Carl Sandburg Home -- was incorporated in part due to fears that the county lacked a billboard ordinance and that the signs might mar the picturesque mountain community and harm tourism. 

In Fayetteville, city officials and billboard owners negotiated a deal that allowed some billboards to be converted to digital signs in exchange for taking down others. City Manager Ted Vorhees said that deal is an example of why local authority and decision-making trumps a uniform statewide approach. It is also evidence that municipal officials and billboard owners can reach a more satisfactory resolution, he said. Since then, the city has been using the digital billboards itself, entering into a contract with Lamar Advertising to promote different city programs. 

Digital billboards, though, also are seen as potential safety hazards when placed in some locations. Winterville Councilwoman Veronica Roberson believes they have no place at busy intersections, where drivers need to be aware of merging traffic and changing traffic lights. “I call it a big TV. In our community, this poses a safety issue,” she said. 

Last year’s bill stripping local authority over billboards remains eligible for the coming legislative short session. Its lack of momentum last year – coupled with legislative leaders’ comments that they do not want to take up controversial legislation this year – may be an indication that the bill won’t get any further this year. Poll results, including those from a poll commissioned by the League last fall, showing overwhelming public support for local control of billboards are another reason that the legislation might not move. 

Still, McGrady said that the decades long tug-of-war is not going to end anytime soon. As a key legislative opponent of these types of proposals, he said that leaves him one recourse: “So, ball up and make one’s self a porcupine.”