North Carolina billboard regulations finally clear committee

A rewrite of North Carolina’s outdoor advertising regulations has been scaled back after complaints it would be very expensive for governments to pay owners whose billboards must be taken down for new or widened interstates and highways.

The updated legislation, approved Wednesday by a House committee, advanced after earlier versions had been derailed at least twice by opposition.

This time, language was taken out that had been opposed by the state Department of Transportation and municipalities about how to calculate what is “just compensation” when land containing a billboard is condemned for public use.

“I hope it’s a little better than it was in the earlier two stops that it made,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and chief sponsor of the bill. “The two goals of this bill are the preservation and the modernization of the outdoor advertising industry.”

The state transportation agency’s chief had told legislators previously that the formula components, including lost projected advertising income, would have substantially increased the costs of projects within federal highway corridors and could slow down road construction. While the agency still has concerns, DOT lobbyist Joy Hicks said the agency is now officially neutral on the bill.

But the North Carolina League of Municipalities and conservation groups still are opposed to the measure. They are worried the proposal would allow advertising companies to relocate billboards already installed in a town or city zoned for commercial or industrial use, even if the original billboard hasn’t been forcibly removed by condemnation.

Any local government that has barred billboards fully within its boundaries still can enforce that complete prohibition under the legislation, but those cities that have agreed to billboard-free areas couldn’t prevent their relocation in those zoned areas.

“Our main issue is the loss of local control,” said Rose Vaughn Williams, a league lobbyist, after the committee recommended the updated measure on a voice vote. There were only a few no votes. The bill’s next stop is the House floor.

Ryke Longest, a board member for Scenic North Carolina and Scenic America, told the committee the bill would turn the industry into a “cartel” of permit holders run by the state who can shift billboards wherever they choose. For example, he said, any Wake County billboard could be moved to a now-empty stretch along Interstate 40 between Raleigh and the Research Triangle Park if the land owner gives the OK.

But Lewis said it makes sense to have a uniform system of how billboards can be located along federal corridors and already are permitted by the DOT.

The bill also would make it easier for outdoor advertising owners to upgrade traditional roadside billboards to digital signs with changeable messages and to add a second sign to a single-face billboard. Lewis said the improvements would help local governments collect additional property taxes because billboard values would increase.

Aaron Guyton with Fairway Outdoor Advertising in Raleigh told the committee the industry has been slowly choked by local governments that have pushed out billboards and refused to pay fair compensation. While supporting the bill, Guyton said the industry should be allowed to succeed or fail based on market forces, instead of by government decisions.