Don’t let lawmakers sell out NC’s scenic beauty

By Ryke Longest and Dale McKeel

Billboard owners are eager to convert their old school signs to new digital billboards to generate more money by distracting us to read their messages.  You don’t have that kind of control over a digital billboard — it’s nearly impossible not to glance at a glowing, hi-resolution sign where ads change every six seconds. Scenic America and Scenic NC oppose outdoor advertising placed in every public place. Local control is the only thing keeping corridors like I-40 through the RTP from looking like I-95 north of Fayetteville. Billboards are visual pollution and digital billboards are the worst they currently make. 

Many of North Carolina’s cities have avoided the blight of digital billboards by adopting local regulations that restrict digital billboards – both because they’re painfully ugly and because they’re designed to take drivers’ eyes off the road.  But now our freedom from those distracting eyesores is in danger.

The billboard industry is back for more legislative favoritism from the NC General Assembly. Pieces of pro-billboard legislation which failed two years ago (HB 173, HB 578, HB 579, HB 580, and HB 581) have been cobbled together into a single bill (HB 645) which has passed the House and will be heard in the Senate.  Two studies presented at the Transportation Research Board in 2017 have shown that digital billboards are not just distracting, they are dangerous. HB 645 seeks to reset local controls on billboards back to those which existed in 1972, when cities were much smaller and digital billboards were not restricted, because they had never been used.  If local ordinances government did not have ordinances in place to predict the future technology, they would have no control. Imagine resetting zoning ordinances back to 1972 codes.

It is not just digital billboards at issue. Other provisions would remove local control over billboard height, allow the cutting of state-owned trees in front of billboards and allow billboards to be relocated from one part of the community to another, even if local ordinances currently prohibit it. The provisions being considered would eliminate local control over relocated billboards, allowing up to 10 billboards per mile under minimal standards set by NCDOT and FHWA back in 1972.

Our roads and highways serve as the front porch of our state. North Carolina’s natural beauty is one of our greatest assets; don’t let the General Assembly sell out our state’s roadways to support a struggling billboard industry. Contact your legislators and Governor Cooper’s office now to let them know you oppose HB 645.

Ryke Longest is a clinical professor of law at Duke University School of Law and serves as Chair of the Scenic America Board of Directors. Dale McKeel serves as President of Scenic NC.

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