The Charlotte Observer By Staff Writer April 22, 2017
“Billboard Bob” is gone, but the billboard industry is back with a vengeance.
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg Republican, earned the moniker in 2011 when he co-sponsored legislation allowing billboard companies to chop down more trees to make their signs more visible. The new law also stripped local governments of much of their power in regulating billboards.
Rucho has retired from the General Assembly, but other legislators – primarily House Rules Committee Chairman David Lewis – are now taking the lead in further helping billboard companies at the expense of trees and local governments. The House could take up as many as five bills this week that are friendly to the industry.
Together, they represent an exhaustive wish list from billboard companies. Without a public outcry, at least some appear likely to pass.
Among the changes afoot:
▪ More trees being cut down. The “maximum cutting zone” for removing vegetation around billboards would increase from 340 feet to 500 feet. In 2012, lawmakers expanded it from 250 feet, so this increase is nearly twice as big. The new laws come as Charlotte strives to increase its tree canopy coverage to 50 percent, through the work of Trees Charlotte and others. This would make that job considerably harder.
▪ Governments would have to pay billboard companies far more money to remove existing signs for a public works project. Under current law, the state has to pay for the value of the property and the sign. Under the new law, the state would have to pay the company for lost advertising revenue going years into the future. The N.C. League of Municipalities suggests the amount could be 10 times as much as is now required. The Sierra Club points to a similar change in Minnesota that forced the state to pay $750,000 for each billboard it removed, and even more for digital billboards.
▪ Rules would be loosened to allow companies to move their billboards from one part of town to another, including to areas where they are not currently allowed. At least one bill specifies that the state DOT shall not deny a billboard permit just because it violates local ordinances.
▪ Digital billboards could become much more commonplace. Lewis touts this as an effort to create a statewide emergency messaging system, though the president of the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association emphasizes “digital billboards also provide local businesses the opportunity to change their advertising messages throughout the day in an incredibly cost effective manner.”
The billboard industry, like any other, has to be given reasonable room to operate. But the law must strike a balance that also protects taxpayers, local government control, trees and the beauty of our state.
“Professionals did all they could last time and they still passed the bill,” Don McSween, the now-retired Charlotte arborist told the editorial board. “Now it’s time for grassroots citizens to unite against stuff like this.”
We agree. Let your legislators know what you think.