A billboard ad near N.C. 147 last year in Durham.

This blog entry has been edited and updated from its original version to include additional content.

A Senate bill expanding the law on outdoor billboards cleared a Senate committee Wednesday, but only after the bill was stripped of language that would have allowed billboard companies to replace traditional signs with electronic or digital ones.

Had the language remained and passed this legislative session, it would have superseded any local policies against digital billboards, including any opposition from Durham city leaders, who voted unanimously last summer not to permit such signs.

But the remaining language in the bill, (SB 183) which has been sent back to the full Senate for approval, still has representatives of cities and statewide organizations concerned. The proposal expands the amount of land billboard companies may clear of trees and other vegetation so their signs may be seen from the road. On state roads and highways, cleared swaths could increase from 250 feet to 340 feet. Outside city limits, the area that could be cleared would go up to 380 feet.

“These are the roads that shape how people perceive our communities,” said Ben Hitchings, president-elect of the N.C. Chapter of the American Planning Association. “Now we have a framework under the bill that would trade trees for billboards.” He pointed out that a poll released last month by the N.C. League of Conservation Voters showed that nearly 80 percent of respondents to the poll were opposed to the removal of more trees so billboards could be visible for a greater distance.

Representatives of the billboard industry, including the N.C. Outdoor Advertising Association, initially aimed a little higher with SB 183. Billboard proponents wanted even broader clearing allowances, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, who sponsored the bill. But over the past month, Brown said he led about 15 hours of negotiations among interested groups including lobbyists for the billboard industry, the N.C. League of Municipalities and the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition.

The Senate bill might have died without compromise. A month ago, when the Senate Transportation Committee first reviewed it, members from both parties raised issue with proposed changes that would have overruled any local ordinances on signs and billboards across the state.

Several Democrats, including Sen. Floyd McKissick of Durham, commended Brown for his efforts to find compromise on the bill.

“I think you’ve come a long way,” McKissick said to Brown, adding that he felt more comfortable with the way the proposal was headed.

But there’s still more work to do, according to Hitchings and lobbyists Dana Fenton, representing the city of Charlotte, and Paul Meyer, representing the N.C. League of Municipalities. As Meyer spoke to the committee Wednesday, he likened current tree-cutting laws to being just enough to “picture-frame” billboards, or trim trees down just enough for signs to be viewable without clearing them entirely. The proposed law could open up wider areas to clear cutting, not just trimming, and would overrule tree-preservation measures towns have taken locally.

And there is one other notable change—and possible loophole— for signs using electricity, Hitchings pointed out. The bill would now prohibit cities or towns from denying electrical utility permits to billboards. This is currently an enforcement tool cities may use to prevent non-compliant billboards from having access to electricity, said Hitchings, also a town planner. If the bill passes, cities wouldn’t be able to deny permits if the N.C. DOT had issued a valid permit for that billboard under state law starting in October.

The bill also increases three permitting fees for billboard companies, doubling the rate for vegetation removal from $200 to $400, and allocating $30 a year from every legal billboard to an N.C. Department of Transportation beautification program. But, as Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, pointed out to his fellow committee members, there was no language in the bill to suggest that trees removed from a particular highway would be restored to that same area, or phrases that defined what “beautification” projects were. An engineer with the N.C. DOT said his department intended on using the revenue for from those permit fees to plant decorative trees such as crape myrtles in highly visible spots including the landscapes that divide highways.

A companion bill in the N.C. House, (HB 309) is still pending review by the House Transportation Committee.