Nearly 50 years ago, North Carolina’s leaders played a pivotal role in seeking to protect our highways from visual blight posed by billboards and junkyards. North Carolina’s former Gov. Luther Hodges and its highways chief, William F. Babcock, helped bring Lady Bird Johnson’s vision into being. Lady Bird saw our highways as the front yards of our communities and envisioned them as gardens rather than as billboard alleys. Babcock expressed this vision eloquently, stating “the highway in a rural setting, should fit the landscape like a deer in the forest rather than a bull in the china shop.” Now political leaders are laying out the welcome mat for the bull by seeking to undo the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 and promote permanent, digital billboards in the state.
Sen. Harry Brown of Jacksonville introduced SB320 last month, while Rep. Mike Hager of Rutherford County sponsored the companion bill, HB 304. This bill would restrict the state’s ability to regulate the billboard industry and enable established billboard firms to profit at the public’s expense. SB320 proposes that it is North Carolina’s job to foster billboards’ “visibility to the traveling public.” This declaration commits the state to making billboards more obtrusive, exactly the bull in the china shop which Babcock opposed.
The news is even worse for taxpayers. Under SB320, the costs NC DOT will have to pay a billboard owner if they need to remove a billboard to improve a road will skyrocket. No fiscal note has yet been produced to study these effects, and the billboard industry’s supporters have fought disclosing the industry’s true costs and benefits at every turn. The new billboard buyout formula in the bill mirrors the approach used by Clear Channel Communications in demanding more than $9 million from the Minnesota DOT as payment for removing billboards blocking the new bridge route from St. Paul’s Lafayette Bridge. These demands were settled when Minnesota taxpayers agreed to pay $7.3 million for five billboards.
SB320 also authorizes existing billboards to be reconstructed as digital signs with changeable messages, wooden sign poles to be converted to steel monopoles, and sign height to be increased up to 80 feet.
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Conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr. opined that billboards are acts of aggression against which the public is entitled to be protected as a matter of privacy. In 1968 Buckley wrote “If a homeowner desires to construct a huge Coca-Cola sign facing his own homestead rather than the public highway, in order to remind him, every time he looks out his window, that the time has come to pause and be refreshed, he certainly should be left free to do so. But if he wants to face the sign toward us, that is something else, and the big name libertarian theorists should go to work demolishing the billboarders’ abuse of the argument of private property.” President Johnson praised the passage of the Highway Beautification Act as the triumph of public good over private greed.
Now, greed is poised to triumph over public good. Under SB320, North Carolina would become the de jure enforcer of a government-sanctioned cartel, guaranteeing exclusive profits and payouts for existing billboard permit holders well into the 21st century. The buyout cost to the public will go up as the billboards go digital. We will leave a bill for our children to pay to out-of-state businesses. Lady Bird Johnson understood that scenic beauty was a key public good. SB 320 is a giant step backward.
Ryke Longest is a Clinical Professor of Law at Duke School of Law.