This billboard advertising the Dixie Gun & Knife from summer 2010 on the Durham Freeway sparked controversy over its placement.
  • file photo by D.L. Anderson
  • This billboard advertising the Dixie Gun & Knife from summer 2010 on the Durham Freeway sparked controversy over its placement.

Several state senators expressed concern Wednesday over a bill that would allow digital billboards across the state’s interstates and highways, regardless of local rules that might prohibit them. The bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown of Jacksonville, said he just wanted feedback Wednesday, and no vote was taken. He is expected to revise the bill and bring it back to the Senate Transportation Committee.

Several senators said their major issue was the idea of taking away a community’s control of its own appearance from highways and interstates.

“I don’t think we ought to take the control away from our local governments,” said Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, who noted his district is home to a large billboard company. “We do too much micromanaging up here as it is.”

The bill (SB183) would override local rules on signage, even those banning digital billboards, and would allow broader cutting of trees and other vegetation in front of the signs to increase visibility. The signs and tree-cutting would disregard local ordinances governing those very issues.

If passed, the bill wouldn’t allow any new billboards to be put up, but would allow old billboards on interstates and major highways to be replaced with signs that have changing images, whether through digital screens or rotating parts. As it’s currently written, the law would be effective Oct. 1.

Just last year, Durham City Council unanimously shot down a request from Fairway Outdoor Advertising to change its sign ordinances to allow for digital billboards, in part due to overwhelming opposition from residents who launched a campaign against the local issue. Several other municipalities, including each of the state’s largest cities, have spoken out against the bill, said Paul Meyer, chief legislative counsel for the N.C. League of Municipalities. Several other groups, including the North Carolina chapters of the Sierra Club and the American Planning Association, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition and Preservation North Carolina have also announced their opposition to the bill.

“We need to have the ability with each local government to decide what they want and what they will permit in their communities,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. “There are different local norms. I think enhancing the beauty of our communities and the uniqueness of our communities is something we should respect.”

McKissick noted that he had drafted an amendment that would delete any part of the bill that would eliminate the control of local governments, so that the state wouldn’t be stepping over the decisions of individual cities and towns. He was ready to file the amendment Wednesday, he said, but with Brown scheduled to bring revisions back to the committee, McKissick said he would hold off.

“Whenever a bill sponsor wants to work on it, we let him work on it,” he said.

The bill also proposes increasing fees for the signs and permits to cut trees, and some of that money would go back to planting more trees on the state’s highways, Brown said.

He called SB183 a “jobs bill” that will generate work for workers including welders, crane operators, truck drivers, and for RTP-based company Cree, which was founded in North Carolina and locally manufactures lighting components that are used in digital signs.

“What other industry is prohibited to invest in its infrastructure,” Brown said. He later continued: “We talk about technology helping every business and yet we want to limit this one particular business by not letting them use (digital) technology. I’m not sure that’s very fair. If somebody can help me work through the fairness issue, I think a local control issue is something we can talk about.”