Under proposed billboard legislation, outdoor advertising companies have more property rights than people living near hog farms

(Photo from www.bitemefirearms.net)

O n the way to the beach along US 70, the billboards, like the landscape, change in tone: Further inland, billboards bearing “Bite Me Firearms” dominate the highway, while closer to the coast, ads featuring women touting the benefits of breast augmentation become common.

More billboards could cover the roadsides after the House Finance Committee today bundled portions of four measures into one mega-legislation, giving more power to outdoor advertising companies. The changes were part of a proposed committee substitute to House Bill 581. Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, is the sponsor.

If HB 581 becomes law, billboard companies would have even greater latitude in where they can place their signs (including the retina-burning digital versions), the amount taxpayers would pony up if a sign must be removed, and the number of trees that can be felled to make the ads visible.

This legislation also overrides parts of local billboard ordinances. Durham, for example, prohibits digital billboards inside the city limits. Under HB 581, companies can switch out their static billboards for flashing ones, regardless of local regulations.

Outdoor advertising companies could also relocate billboards to places they are currently prohibited, as long as they are in the same jurisdiction. For example, there is a two-mile section of the Durham Freeway, from about Exit 11 (Alston Avenue) to Exit 13 (Chapel Hill Street) — the “gateway” to the city, where billboards are not allowed. Under this language, a billboard could be moved from outside that zone and into it, as long as the sign originated in Durham.

Of concern to environmental advocates is the potential loss of trees as a result of the measure. If a company decides trees are obscuring the view of the ad — which, according to the legislation, has a “right to be visibly seen” — that greenery can be clear cut, even in medians and at exit ramps. According to the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club, dogwoods and redbuds would lose their current protected status.

HB 581: a major giveaway of taxpayer revenues, trees & local government control Click To Tweet

“The bill is a major giveaway of public money and assets — including taxpayer revenues, the public’s trees and local government control,” said Molly Diggins, Sierra Club state director, in a statement, “to shore up and increase the profitability of an industry that is increasingly becoming obsolete.”

In referring to taxpayer revenues, Diggins is referring to a portion of the bill that forces state or local governments that require the removal of a sign — to build a bridge, for example — to pay for lost advertising revenue, as opposed to covering only the replacement cost of the sign.

As a philosophical exercise, contrast this billboard provision with the hog nuisance lawsuit legislation — now law.

Under the nuisance bill, citizens who sue a hog farm over quality of life issues (and win) can receive compensation only for the fair value of their property, not the loss of their health or enjoyment of their home.

The billboard measure, though, flips that scenario. A company is not limited to only the fair value of the sign; the company can be compensated for “loss.”

How advertising revenue would be calculated is also unclear. Sometimes billboard companies heavily discount outdoor ads to nonprofits or government agencies. (This is not for purely altruistic reasons. These near-freebies help fill the excess inventory; empty billboards are not a good look for outdoor advertising companies.) So would the government agency be charged the full advertising rate? Or just the amount the advertiser was paying at the time?

Either way, the advertising company that erects a billboard objectifying women has more property rights than people living near industrialized hog farms.

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