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RALEIGH — The state Senate Transportation Committee made major changes Wednesday to a bill aimed at expanding the visibility of billboards and the number of digital billboards, but some remain concerned that the proposed law will lead to extensive roadside clearcutting of trees.
Hise, a former Spruce Pine mayor whose senate district includes Avery, Haywood, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, and Yancey counties, said local governments will retain the same 250-foot cut zones and the power to decide where billboards are placed.
He added that the bill will be amended in the Finance Committee to stipulate that the increase in billboard renewal fees be spent on beautification projects in the same areas where the fees are collected rather than go into a general DOT beautification fund.
Hise said the expanded cut zones will not detract from the scenic beauty of unincorporated areas of Western North Carolina. He said the average cut zone in neighboring states in 500 feet and it has not produced unsightly clear-cutting.
Rather than being an eyesore, billboards can be an asset to tourists areas like Western North Carolina, Hise said.
“Tourists use billboards. That’s how they find out a place to stay and find restaurants and gasoline,” he said. “We don’t want them to be blocked. Billboards in a particular area convince (tourists) to stay and spend their revenue in that area.”
Bill revised after ‘groundswell’
The version of Senate Bill 183 approved by the committee Wednesday eliminates a provision that would have allowed traditional billboards to be converted to digital billboards without local approval. It also scaled back the proposed expansion of the zone in which billboard owners could clear trees and other vegetation.
One major environmental group, the N.C. League of Conservation Voters, welcomed the changes saying the bill was now “a shell” of the original bill offered by Sen. Harry Brown, a Jacksonville Republican.
“There was a groundswell of people against this from the get go that really caused this,” said Dan Crawford, a lobbyist for the N.C. League of Conservation Voters. “The people spoke and Sen. Brown listened in this case.”
While key elements of the original bill were dropped, the proposed law still would expand so-called “cut zones” in front of billboards. The bill continues a 250-foot cut zone on roads within municipal jurisdictions. It expands the cut zone on interstate highways within municipalities to 340 feet and to 380 feet on state and federal roads running through unincorporated areas.
Paul Meyer, chief legislative counsel of the N.C. League of Municipalities, said the expanded zones could detract from scenic areas in the state’s mountain and coastal regions because they have large swaths of unincorporated areas.
“We’re certainly concerned there are parts of the state in high tourist areas where you’re going to have clearcutting in picturesque communities,” Meyer said.
Local governments objected to the original bill because it allowed billboards to be converted to digital displays without the approval of local governments. Although the digital provisions were dropped, Meyer said the expanded cut areas still usurp local control.
“It limits (local governments’) capacity to control what their local community looks like,” he said.
Trade group supports bill’s extended cut zones
Tony Adams, a lobbyist for the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association, said the expanded zones are needed because vegetation and trees — some protected by local tree ordinances — obscure the view of 20 percent of the state’s 8,000 billboards.
“Our people are constantly getting complaints about our signs being blocked,” he said.
Adams said the proposed law would not lead to a proliferation of new billboards. He said their are fewer in the state now than 20 years ago. He added that the extended cut zones are more in line with neighboring states that allow up to 500 feet.
The revised bill would raise the annual renewal fee for billboards from $60 to $90. The extra funds would go to a highway beautification fund operated by the state Department of Transportation. Adams said the funds could offset trees removed from the expanded cut zones by paying for the planting of trees elsewhere on roadways.
“I think we arrived at a compromise we can certainly live with,” Adams said.
Senate Bill 183 next goes to the Senate Finance Committee because it contains a fee increase. A Finance Committee vote is expected next week.