Capital Goods - May 2011

Signs on the dotted lines
By Scott Mooneyham

To detractors, they are “litter on a stick.” To supporters, they’re effective advertising, a source of jobs and income producers for landowners. Billboards have been the cause of legislative, court and public-relations battles for decades. Another fight, this one prompted by new technology, is under way at the General Assembly. Billboard owners want to be allowed to upgrade their signs to use electronic technology so that advertisements can change every few seconds. The new digital signs, which look something like giant flat-screen TVs, have popped up along roadways in North Carolina and across the country. Nationally, about 2,400 have been erected the last five years, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

But some cities have ordinances that bar digital billboards because the existing signs were “grandfathered” and, as nonconforming uses, can’t be upgraded. Billboardowners want to change that. Legislation being considered in the state Senate would pre-empt local sign ordinances when they affect billboards built along major highways. The bill would also change the rules on clearing trees along public rights of way, allowing them to be cut 400 feet from signs instead of the current limit of 250 feet.

In Durham, the legislation would gut an existing billboard ban. In Charlotte, a tree ordinance would be undone. The billboard industry has found that it is not only fighting environmental groups — a traditional opponent when it has sought changes — but also local government. Fayetteville Mayor Tony Chavonne is among the critics of the bill. He doesn’t believe that legislators in Raleigh should be dictating to locally elected officials how their communities ought to look. Chavonne seems to have some support among the honorables. As the bill was being considered by a Senate committee, Sen. Richard Stevens, a Wake County Republican and former county manager, remarked that legislators appeared to be engaged in micromanaging local affairs. Critics also question the safety of the new technology, saying it can distract drivers. Digital billboards would be allowed to change every eight seconds, though state law prevents live video and scrolling.

The jury is still out on whether the changing messages distract drivers. A 2007 study by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute financed by the billboard industry says they don’t. A review of several studies by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials counters that they could pull drivers’ eyes away from the road for an unsafe period of time.

Lost in the debate is the economic impact of billboard advertising for select businesses — and how much more effective digital billboards could be, says Tony Adams, lobbyist for the North Carolina Outdoor Advertising Association. That’s a plus not only for billboard owners but also for the tourism industry that particularly depends on that type of advertising, he says. “Advertisers like to be able to change their message quickly. With this, you can advertise specials all the time.” The industry’s arguments lean heavily on its contributions to the economy. It claims a payroll of $16 million in North Carolina and pays out $12 million in lease payments to property owners on whose land billboards stand. The industry knows how to stroke state government. It contributes about $5 million a year to public service announcements, much of it promoting tourism-related state enterprises such as the North Carolina Zoo and state aquariums. The legislation attempts to blunt opposition by raising permit fees for the signs, and some of that money would go to tree planting and highway-beautification projects.

That doesn’t mean the billboard industry will win this fight, even though the proposal has some powerful supporters, including the Senate’s majority leader, Onslow County Republican Harry Brown. The new Republican majority is apt to be more sympathetic to the economic arguments than its Democratic predecessor, but in this case, those arguments run headlong into another aspect of conservative philosophy — the more local the control, the more responsive the government to the governed.

Billboard owners would say that they, too, are part of the governed and that the current restrictions didn’t anticipate a time when someone could tap a few keystrokes on a computer to determine what kind of message would flash from a billboard. They do have one advantage over opponents of the legislation: They could begin an advertising campaign urging North Carolinians to support their cause. Plenty of motorists would see it. Some could even be flashed a different spiel every eight seconds.

Scott Mooneyham is the editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com.