They tried in 2012—and failed. They tried again in 2013—and failed again. Now, like Chucky the Doll, the billboard legislation is back, refusing to die.

Senate Bill 320 would overturn Durham’s strict billboard ordinance, which regulates where outdoor advertising can be placed, and most important, it prohibits digital billboards.

The legislation would expand the power of the N.C. Department of Transportation to regulate billboards, while shrinking local control. It has been referred to the commerce committee.

“The billboard industry’s measure would allow electronic billboards, soaring 80 feet in the air, flashing 10,000 ads per day,” said John Schelp, who successfully spearheaded opposition to changing Durham’s sign ordinance in 2010. “A lot of folks in North Carolina live near highways. Imagine sitting on your porch, looking at a big TV on a stick—soaring over the treetops. Or imagine an elderly relative, driving home in the rain, distracted by a bright billboard ahead, flashing off the wet pavement. Hard to believe anyone would support the industry on this one.”

Under the Durham ordinance, digital billboards are banned inside the city limits. And an ordinance banning the construction of new billboards has been in place since 1984.

A little history is in order here: In 2009 and 2010, Fairway Outdoor Advertising, which is based in Georgia but has offices in Raleigh, tried to convince Durham City Council and the County Commissioners to relax the local sign ordinance.The advertising company even hired K&L Gates, a high-powered law firm, to push its weight around.

But Durham citizens vehemently opposed weaker rules, Durham City Council voted to keep the sign ordinance, and finally K&L Gates limped away without getting its way.

Apparently realizing that Durham elected officials would not relent, outdoor advertising industry and lobbyists went to the General Assembly in 2011 and 2013 to try to pass a state law easing the restrictions. The Legislature did pass a law regulating “selective vegetation removal”—the trimming of trees and bushes near billboards. That law allowed even more greenery to be removed, to ensure travelers more easily see the gigantic black-and-yellow “Dixie Gun & Knife Show” sign along N.C. 147.

SB 320 states (jargon alert, but stand by for a translation):
“It is the intention of the General Assembly to provide … a public policy and statutory basis for the establishment of a uniform system for the regulation and control of outdoor advertising throughout the State.”

Translation: This is yet another instance of state lawmakers stripping local governments of control over their ordinances, regulations, elections—essentially their quality of life.

This year’s bill is sponsored by five Republicans:

  • Harry Brown of Jones and Onslow counties, who owns a car dealership, and thus would likely be interested in billboards
  • Bill Rabon, who represents four counties in the Wilmington area
  • Jeff Tarte of Mecklenburg County
  • Ralph Hise, who represents six mountain counties
  • and agribusinessman Brent Jackson, whose district includes Sampson, Johnston and Duplin counties. Jackson co-sponsored the 2013 bill.