Environment, Legislature

Billboard measure up for final Senate vote this morning; digital billboard question remains unsolved

A Lamar outdoor advertising map shows the locations of all its billboards in North Carolina. This doesn’t include those owned by other companies. About 8,200 billboards in the state are permitted or in the process of being permitted. (Map: Lamar)

There are about 8,200 billboards in North Carolina that are currently permitted or in the process of being permitted; now imagine if every one of those highway advertisements became a digital beacon of blinking lights all vying for your attention.

While it’s extremely unlikely that every billboard would be converted to digital, House Bill 645, would allow more — and possibly much brighter — outdoor advertising, including in places it doesn’t currently exist. The measure pits an outdoor advertiser’s “right to be clearly viewed” against local governments’ authority to regulate the siting of digital billboards.

The bill was resurrected this session after two years’ of dormancy. Among its many provisions, the measure’s original language would have prevented local governments from banning digital billboards. Durham is among the municipalities that has enacted such a prohibition

The bill has been through five revisions in the Senate, most recently yesterday. Sen. Chuck Edwards’ amendment removes “customary use” language from the bill, replacing it with a reference to a general statute, to assuage concerns that digital billboards could replace traditional ones over local officials’ objections.

Edwards, who represents three mountain counties, said during a floor discussion that the statute — NCGS 136-131.2 — defines “modernization” in a manner that prevents billboards from being converted to digital over local government objections.

However, there is still confusion over the term “modernization.” An NCDOT analysis from March 2019, conducted before the recent legislation was introduced, refers to that same statute. The DOT analysis includes examples of modernization as “static faces become digital” and the replacement of wooden multi-pole structures with steel monopoles.

The measure passed its second reading in the Senate and is scheduled for its third reading this morning when the Senate convenes at 9:30. The bill passed the House, but since its language has significantly changed, it could go to a conference committee before ratification.

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