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Hundreds of trees may fall under new billboard law

Approval sought under new law to clear hundreds of trees blocking billboards

By Steve Harrison
sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

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Charlotte’s largest billboard company has requested permission to clear hundreds of trees along city interstates under a controversial new law opponents say could blight the landscape.

Adams Outdoor Advertising has submitted 21 applications to remove trees – the first test of a law that went into effect March 1 and gives companies more leeway to clear vegetation that obscures roadside signs.

Some requests are small and would remove a handful of trees. Other applications could have greater impact.

For instance, at the intersection of Brookshire Freeway and Independence Boulevard, Adams’ application calls for removing up to 92 trees – such as elms, oaks, maples and cedars.

An application for “vegetation removal” for a billboard at Interstate 485 and Westinghouse Boulevard would allow for removal of more than 150 trees.

Kevin Madrzykowski, general manager for Adams’ Charlotte office, said the company might not cut down as many trees as listed in its applications.

He said the company is reserving the right to cut the maximum number of trees allowed, but might not follow through.

“That doesn’t mean that’s what we will do,” Madrzykowski said. “It will be case by case.”

After lobbying from the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association and billboard companies, the N.C. General Assembly passed the vegetation-removal law last year, over objections of environmentalists and the city of Charlotte.

Under the previous law, billboard companies were allowed to ask the N.C. Department of Transportation for a permit to clear a 250-foot window in front of billboards.

Now that window can be as large as 340 feet.

City of Charlotte officials say the biggest change is the new law shifts authority from local governments and places it within the power of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

The city of Charlotte has a relatively strict tree ordinance, designed to save trees during development. The city has previously prohibited billboard companies from cutting down trees larger than four inches in diameter.

City arborist Don McSween said he’s concerned about the initial applications.

“When you get there and look, on a double-face billboard, 680 feet is a long way,” McSween said.

Adams has said it is simply trying to ensure that its signs can be seen. Since the billboards were erected, trees and other vegetation have grown to obscure them, and clients paying to advertise have complained, the company has said.

McSween said the city’s strict tree ordinance did put the billboard companies in a difficult position, in some cases. He said that by the time a tree grew large enough to obscure a sign, it was likely larger than four inches in diameter, and prohibited from being cut down.

“There was a conflict,” McSween said. “I will admit that.”

Madryzkowski said the different local and state rules “put us in a situation where we were paralyzed.”

Comment period

The city has a 30-day window to comment on the applications, which will be reviewed by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

If the state denies a request, a billboard company can appeal. If a municipality’s protest is denied, it has no more recourse, according to the law.

On some applications, in which only a few trees could be removed, McSween said the city may give its OK. But on others, in which dozens of trees could come down, he said the city will likely push to preserve more trees.

“I’m not unreasonable,” McSween said. “I won’t chain myself to any tree.”

The actual number of trees that could be removed is small compared to the number of trees cut down each year to make way for new development. McSween noted that a new shopping center off Albemarle Road will see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of trees removed, despite the city’s tree ordinance.

But the trees possibly chopped down to make billboards more noticeable are seen by tens of thousands of motorists each day, McSween said.

Court hearing

The vegetation removal permits are detailed, with drawings showing the exact location, type and size of each tree in question.

An application for a sign at I-277 and Brevard Street has identified 29 elm trees, three wild cherry trees and one oak tree within the 340-foot window of a billboard.

An application for vegetation removal at Interstate 485 and Westinghouse Boulevard lists more than 250 myrtles as in the window of a billboard, though it’s unclear if all would be removed.

The applications submitted March 1 only cover Interstates 77, 485 and 277. Adams will likely submit more applications.

The city is concerned about trees that line Independence Boulevard near Plaza Midwood and Elizabeth that were planted in the mid-1990s to shield neighborhoods from noise. In some cases, those trees obscure billboards.

Adams said it hasn’t submitted all of its applications yet for Charlotte. But it has said in the past it wants to be sensitive to nearby homes.

It’s unclear when and if the applications will be approved.

Ryke Longest, director of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, has filed a lawsuit for Scenic N.C. seeking to stop any applications from being approved. The group believes the law will cause significant environmental damage.

A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for March 14 in Wake County, said John Nance of the N.C. DOT.

Nance said the state has so far received fewer than 100 applications statewide.

If they remove trees, billboard companies have three options. They can replant the area with a state-approved landscaping plan; they can remove two nonconforming billboards anywhere in the state or they can pay the state for the loss of the trees.

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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