As part of Charlotte’s Independence Boulevard project, North Carolina’s transportation department took down a billboard at the corner of Independence and Sharon Amity, where more than 85,000 cars whizz by every day.
So the question now being debated by the N.C. Supreme Court – and by lawmakers at the General Assembly – is, how much is a sign worth? And how much should taxpayers pay to remove it?
Those are some of the issues at stake in a flurry of bills that could be voted on this week by the N.C. House.
Pushed by the billboard industry, the measures are opposed by environmentalists as well as cities such as Charlotte.
“This would be … a historic usurpation of local control,” said Rykes Longest, who teaches law at Duke University and sits on the board of Scenic America.
Existing billboards often find themselves in the way of development or road construction. An industry spokesman says 1 percent of all billboards are lost each year. House Bill 580 would lift restrictions on where those signs could be relocated.
“In an effort to stop the loss, we want to be able to maintain the status quo of the (billboard) assets in a particular jurisdiction,” said Craig Justus, general counsel for the N.C. Outdoor Advertisers Association.
The bill would allow companies to move signs from an industrial area to a commercial area along major road corridors, regardless of city restrictions.
“You’re going to see billboards in locations where you haven’t seen them before and where they haven’t been allowed,” said Mark Fowler, zoning supervisor for Charlotte’s code enforcement. He said the measure could allow signs on N.C. 49 – Tryon Street – or N.C. 16 – Providence Road.
Another bill, HB 578, would expand the area where companies could cut down trees around a billboard and allow them to cut trees in a median if they blocked the view of a billboard.
HB 579 would change the way companies are reimbursed for signs that have to be taken down.
Now, companies are reimbursed for the cost of the sign itself. The bill would expand the definition of “just compensation” by including, among other things, the value of income that could be generated by the sign.
That’s the issue in the case of the sign at Independence and Sharon Amity.
The state Department of Transportation took down the sign in 2011 as part of the Independence Boulevard widening. The sign owner, Adams Outdoor Advertising, sued. Although 17 years remained on Adams’ lease with the land owner, DOT argued that the sign’s fair market value was zero. In 2014 a Superior Court disagreed and said DOT had to consider “rental income generated” as part of compensation.
The DOT appealed and won. The state Supreme Court heard arguments last month. A decision is pending.
“That’s all we’re asking, is to be paid fair market value,” said Justus. Or, as he told a committee last week, “Frankly it’s a way to preserve our industry.”
Scott Capps, a maintenance engineer with N.C. DOT, said the state could end up paying up to $1 million per sign under the proposed change.
According to the Sierra Club, the state of Minnesota had to pay $750,000 per billboard for “lost income” to sign companies. It paid $4.3 million for the taking of a single digital billboard.
Longest, of Scenic America, said if lost income is a factor in compensating for condemned property, what happens if the state condemns a gas station? Or a restaurant?
“If this bill comes along and makes an exception for one industry, others will come along and ask,” he said.