Getting your way with lawmakers

The Observer editorial board

A new N.C. bill would let billboard companies do more of what they want, including cutting trees, regardless of local ordinances.
A new N.C. bill would let billboard companies do more of what they want, including cutting trees, regardless of local ordinances. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

North Carolina lawmakers must be running out of ways to express their affection for the billboard industry.

Once again this year, they’ve introduced outdoor advertising legislation that would kill more trees, threaten our state’s beauty, and further take from cities and towns the ability to determine how they want to look.

House Bill 304 also would make it easier for billboard companies to change existing billboards into large digital screens without permission from those nagging municipalities and towns that would prefer not to have their scenic roadways splotched with digital displays.

The bill, and the billboard laws that have come before it, are a blueprint for industries on how to take advantage of lawmakers – by continually asking for incremental change until you get everything you wanted all along.

A brief history lesson: In 2011, against the wishes of cities and towns across the state, Republicans passed a law allowing billboard companies to cut a wide swath of trees around their billboards without having to replace them or follow local ordinances. The law, which was written with help from the billboard industry, also let billboard companies brazenly put their billboards up behind trees, then cut those trees down in a couple of years.

In 2013, lawmakers went a little further, giving companies the right to replace old billboards with new steel structures, even in areas that were not zoned for billboards.

One thing the billboard companies didn’t get: A clause in a 2013 regulatory reform bill that would have allowed billboard companies to grandfather in all billboards that didn’t conform with current municipal zoning. Efforts to kill the grandfathering clause were defeated, but the regulatory bill died anyway.

The new billboard bill resurrects grandfathering, however, by allowing companies to repair, reconstruct or alter any billboards without local interference. That includes changing out old non-conforming billboards for modern billboards.

This year’s bill even includes a love sonnet to the industry, with language declaring that outdoor advertising is “integral” and should have its visibility “preserved and fostered.”

No such luck for native vegetation like dogwoods and redbuds, which the bill says can be moved out of the way by billboard companies. Because nothing says natural beauty like giant flat screen displays dotting our state’s roadways.

It’s a testament to what kind of green lawmakers like to cultivate most of all – the kind that comes from the state’s businesses. All they have to do is ask.