Environment, Legislature

Republicans, inspired by Ayn Rand, and Democrats, sticking up for trees, join forces to kill billboard bill

House Bill 581 was about as popular as the Edsel. (Photo: Old Cars Weekly)

A fter an hour-long debate last night that contained references to both Ayn Rand and The Twilight Zone, HB 581, aka the billboard bill, failed by a 49-66 vote.

Thirty Republicans and 36 Democrats voted against the measure; 43 Republicans and six Democrats voted for it. The bill was sponsored by Harnett County Republican David Lewis.

“This is the worst billboard bill I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a four-term Republican from Henderson County. “It’s a corporate welfare bill.”

Even after slogging through several committees, the bill was packed with perks for the billboard industry. Although outdoor advertisements couldn’t be built where they are currently prohibited — the Town of Cary and parts of Durham, for example — it otherwise stripped local governments of their control over where billboards could be built.

The measure consolidated power within existing, large billboard companies, making it difficult for smaller ventures to enter the market and compete. A billboard permit would become as coveted as a yellow taxicab medallion in New York City.

Rep. Grier Martin, a Wake County Democrat, proposed an amendment that would have broken up the large companies’ monopoly, but it failed.

In the first of the evening’s two mentions of Ayn Rand, Rep. Jay Adams paraphrased from Atlas Shrugged, noting that the bill used government regulations to prop up a failing industry. Today’s free market, it seems, does not favor billboards, especially ones that don’t blink every six seconds.

HB 581 allowed billboard companies to replace conventional signs with digital billboards. “These are not merely upgrades,” said Rep. Ted Davis, a Republican from New Hanover County, who would probably like to keep his district’s beaches from looking like a carnival. “Going from a static billboard to an electronic one would have a major impact on our state in terms of visual clutter.

I’m getting more confused,” said Rep. Jeff Collins, a Nash County Republican who supported the bill. “Am I in the House of Representatives or The Twilight Zone?” (As if occasionally, they aren’t one and the same.) “What industry do we not let keep up with the times?”

The bill removed protections for redbud and dogwood trees, which under current law, can’t be cut down to make room for billboards. Lewis, the bill sponsor, had included that language, he said, because municipalities were using redbuds and dogwoods as a “tactic” — like a pawn in a chess game, apparently — to block the construction of billboards.

Rep. Brian Turner, a Buncombe County Democrat, tried to convince his fellow lawmakers to pass an amendment to protect the trees. He argued that the flower of the dogwood tree is the official state flower. The amendment failed.

Although appeals to nature didn’t sway lawmakers, the giveaways to the billboard industry were too unpalatable for many Republicans, albeit a minority of them. Thirty-six Democrats pushed the bill across the finish line.

Environmental groups saw the bill’s failure as a rare mark in the win column.

“Tonight’s vote is a victory for North Carolinians who appreciate our state’s scenic beauty,” said Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club, one of many environmental groups that opposed the bill. “It also shows respect for local governments and the wishes of their constituents.”

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