There are 8,000 billboards along North Carolina’s highways, notes Bill Johnson, a retired Department of Transportation employee who spent 30 years as a roadside-environment engineer. And on March 1, all of them will be subject to a new state law that greatly expands the “viewing zone.”
The law increases the potential cutting zone for vegetation from 250 feet to as much as 380 feet along interstates and state roads. And for the first time in decades, it will allow billboard companies to clear-cut areas within state rights of way. The only exceptions will be native dogwoods and redbuds.
"I was on every billboard committee there's ever been," Johnson reports. In 1983, he helped implement the first state-mandated, 150-foot billboard-viewing zone. He also served on the committee that, in 2000, came up with the current triangular, 250-foot viewing zone with "no net loss of trees," he stresses. "Everybody on the committee agreed to it, including outdoor advertising and the environmental community."
"What burns me up," continues Johnson, "is there's no billboard in North Carolina blocked [from view]." The 2000 law allowed selective cutting when trees obscured a billboard while preserving the understory. "Now what they're fixing to do is flat-cut to the ground 380 feet in front of every billboard in North Carolina. In the mountains, it's going to be a disaster."
“Not as drastic as it sounds”
Robert Sykes, president of the Zebulon-based Capital Outdoor Advertising, doesn't see it that way. Asked if his company plans to cut all 380 feet of the area in front of its signs, Sykes, a 35-year industry veteran who’s also vice president of the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association, says succinctly, "No."
"It's a location-by-location decision," he explains, "despite the fact that there's an option of 130 to 90 feet additional, depending on whether it's in the city or county."
About 75 to 80 percent of the state’s billboards don't require major vegetation removal, Sykes estimates, asserting, "It might come down to one or two trees that are the culprits.”
When billboard companies apply for a permit, he explains, there’s a trade-off. In exchange for removing vegetation, they must either: (1) take down two nonconforming signs; (2) plant new vegetation, on-site or elsewhere; or (3) pay compensation, based on a formula that critics say severely undervalues the trees.
Sykes calls the 380-foot maximum "sort of a compromise," since neighboring states allow up to 500-foot viewing zones. "There are about 100,000 miles of highways [involved]," he calculates, "and I'm going to guess we'd probably cut 20 to 25 percent of these locations over the next three to five years. From a view impact, it will not be as drastic as it sounds."
The new law was contentious from the start. The original bill filed in the Senate last March allowed both larger viewing zones and more digital billboards while eliminating municipalities’ control over vegetation in rights of way. Eventually, the digital billboards were dropped, but so was an amendment to reinstate local control proposed by Rep. Chuck McGrady of Henderson County.
Critics questioned the ethics of Rep. Stephen LaRoque of Kinston, a key legislator who owns billboards, as well as industry campaign contributions to lawmakers in both parties. The law also required the DOT to use a “temporary rules” procedure to establish how it would be administered. Normally used only in emergency situations, the procedure allowed little time for public notice or comment.
Scenic North Carolina, an environmental group founded by the late Julian Price of Asheville, urged the Rules Review Commission to use the full rule-making process, further arguing that the proposed rules weren’t in the public interest, wouldn’t give local governments sufficient notice and had technical problems. Nonetheless, the commission approved the temporary rules in January. And while they’ll still go through a more extensive rule-making process eventually, a lot of trees may come down in the meantime.
"We're exploring all options, including litigation," says Ryke Longest, director of Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, which began representing Scenic North Carolina in December.
A Superior Court judge in Muscogee County, Ga., recently prohibited that state’s DOT from allowing billboard companies to clear trees on the public right of way until he can rule on a lawsuit involving a similar case there.
Asked about potential litigation in North Carolina, McGrady, a Republican, thinks it could be successful. But he doubts it would ultimately make a difference, since the DOT "can go back through the process and try to put in place the same rules that were approved in the first place.”
McGrady’s amendment passed the House but not the Senate, and a conference committee produced "an awful result," he maintains. "At the request of Speaker [Thom] Tillis, they renegotiated about 20 percent, if that, of what I had proposed." Municipalities making a written request to review applications are given 30 days to make comments before the application can be filed with the DOT, which McGrady, sounding resigned, calls “better than what we were going to get.”
Democratic Rep. Susan Fisher of Buncombe County calls the new law one more example of "the whole tearing down of public oversight." She’s also concerned about the potential impact on Western North Carolina's economy. "The more they remove what makes this area special — trees, mountains, green space — the less tourists are going to come. People don't come to the mountains to look at billboards."
Susan Roderick of Asheville GreenWorks cites another kind of potential damage. The public, she says, “owns those trees, which … act as a filter and hold steep banks. There's a way for [businesses] to advertise without destroying the environment."
"I'm just disappointed where we find ourselves," says McGrady, noting that he’s already seen cutting areas measured and marked in his home county. "The law would appear to be primarily focused on enriching a set of private interests instead of protecting the public's interest."
— Nelda Holder can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.