Senate passes billboard measure, eroding local control, allowing for more digital outdoor ads

A bill to boost the fortunes and power of the outdoor advertising industry is closer to becoming law after it passed the Senate yesterday 27-17. House Bill 645, “the billboard bill,” now returns to the House for concurrence.

Among the bill’s opponents are environmental, conservation and wildlife groups, who are concerned that outdoor advertising companies would cut down trees to ensure their “right to be viewed.” A greater number of the giant roadside ads would also further clutter the natural landscape.

The bill language is vague enough to allow digital billboards — illuminated advertisements that change every few seconds — to replace traditional ones.

Local governments would also be stripped of nearly all of their power to regulate billboards, including banning or limiting digital versions.

The bill is co-sponsored by Republicans Jason Saine, Jimmy Dixon and Brendan Jones, and Democrat Michael Wray in the House; Republicans Chuck Edwards and Harry Brown and Democrat Wiley Nickel are the Senate co-sponsors.

Bill supporters say the measure is necessary to help the outdoor advertising industry — with its powerful lobbyists and generous campaign contributions — survive.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, introduced several amendments, all of which failed, that would have empowered local governments to have the final say on where billboards can be moved. “No local input is one of the underlying challenges with this bill,” Woodard said. 

Edwards said he is “sympathetic to local control, but that lawmakers have an obligation to state taxpayers for the cost of moving the advertisements.”

However, the bill goes beyond the financial aspects of billboard relocation. Current statutes protect billboard owners from “takings,” and require DOT to pay a fair price if an outdoor advertisement must be moved to make way for a new or expanded thoroughfare.

But the new measure, Woodard said, “expands the power of the owner of the billboard. Every billboard could be moved within 250 feet from its current location and vegetation removed without local input.”

Billboards that are removed through eminent domain could be relocated within two miles of its current location. That could include areas near, or in some cases, within residential neighborhoods.

There are about 8,200 billboards in North Carolina that are currently permitted or in the process of being permitted. Nonetheless, as more businesses advertise online, the industry has lost about 1,000 statewide in the past decade. Although the public still views billboards positively, according to an 2017 analysis by Charles Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova University, “billboards have been losing ground to other media,” Woodard said. “Think about your own [political] campaigns. Compare your budgets for billboards to digital and direct mail. The same is true of local businesses.

“This has forced the billboard industry to fight for every last location and every technology and tool to survive,” Woodard went on. 

(Newspapers and other print media, which fulfill critical public service purposes, have experienced even deeper job losses and closures. No legislation in North Carolina has been introduced to prop up the news business.)

Many of the billboard companies are based outside North Carolina. Based in Baton Rouge, La., Lamar is publicly traded and operates more than 100 offices in the US and Canada. Interstate is based in New Jersey; Fairview is headquartered in Atlanta. Capital Outdoor Advertising is based in Zebulon.

The NC Outdoor Advertising political action committee contributes to both parties, but tends to give more to Republicans. Campaign finance data show that the billboard industry PAC contributed $2,000 each to the Senate and House Republican caucuses last year; the Democratic counterparts received just $500 each.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Saine received $1,000 from the PAC in 2018 and another $2,000 in 2016. Sen. Brown received $2,000 in 2016.

Capital’s president, Steve Bryant, contributed $550 to Sen. Nickel’s campaign last year and added another $500 recently, on June 6.

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