A simple question for your Sunday drive: Would North Carolina be better off with more billboards or more trees?
The N.C. legislature, led by Republicans, is choosing billboards. We urge it to reconsider before the chainsaws start rumbling.
Newly approved rules that take effect in March could cost North Carolina tens of thousands of trees. Those rules, approved last month to accompany a 2011 billboard law, allow outdoor advertising companies to cut more trees than ever without having to replace them, the (Raleigh) News & Observer reported.
The original billboard law, passed last June, allows those companies to cut a wider swath of trees around their billboards - up to 380 feet instead of the current 250 feet - so that the billboards can be visible sooner. The law, sponsored by Republican Sen. Harry Brown of Onslow County, also brazenly lets the companies put their billboards up behind trees, then cut those trees down two years later so long as they haven't grown larger than 4 inches in diameter.
And if the tree cutting allowed by the law runs counter to rules a city such as Charlotte has in place for roads within its limits? Too bad. The Department of Transportation can't deny a permit on the basis of it violating a local ordinance.
If all that sounds like an outdoor advertising company's dream, well, that's because the outdoor advertising industry helped write the legislation and steer it through the General Assembly, the News & Observer reported. Industry reps also were at the ready when, as with many laws, the appropriate state agency was called on to come up with temporary rules to implement the legislation.
That agency was the DOT, which in an initial fit of sensibility proposed that billboard companies be required to replant if they clear-cut 60 percent or more of the area they're permitted. When industry reps howled, state staff backed down.
The billboard companies, along with state Republicans, have argued that the new law will improve the economy by helping small businesses advertise. We're not so sure about another cited benefit - that the billboards will help promote tourism - given that they'll do so by stealing from the beauty that helps bring so many visitors to North Carolina each year.
At least one Republican has the same concern. Chuck McGrady, from the mountain county of Henderson, unsuccessfully tried to give local governments more authority over their trees. He told the News & Observer that he's already seen trees marked for removal around billboards on scenic Interstate 26.
We hope that when the legislature convenes this month, lawmakers will make clearer the intent of the law and encourage the DOT to mandate replanting in its temporary rules. They also could urge DOT to find a better balance between business, beauty and local control as it works through the process of making permanent rules.
That process could take up to a year, however, and by then a lot of trees will be gone along North Carolina roadways. To some that's a good thing, including Mecklenburg Sen. Bob Rucho, a billboard law co-sponsor who noted last year that roadway beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Rucho and other Republicans apparently favor a different kind of green. That's not a choice that's good for North Carolina.