07/12/04 — Veto of billboard bill pleases city

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Veto of billboard bill pleases city

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on July 12, 2004 1:58 PM

Goldsboro officials got the decision they were hoping for Friday when Gov. Mike Easley vetoed a bill requiring local governments to compensate billboard companies that are ordered to remove their signs.

"It was a bad bill," said Mayor Al King. "It would only benefit the billboard industry."

The bill, which bounced around the Legislature for almost two years, was overwhelmingly passed by both the House and the Senate in late June.

It would have required local governments to pay billboard companies fair market value for removing signs that don't conform to city zoning rules.

Fair market value could be interpreted as having to pay up to five times the average amount of the annual revenue for the signs. The North Carolina Chapter of the American Planning Association said that could cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, just to remove a single sign.

The bill was opposed by the N.C. League of Municipalities, N.C. Association of County Commissioners, N.C. Sierra Club, N.C. Downtown Development Association, Preservation North Carolina, Scenic North Carolina, and the N.C. Chapter of the American Planning Association.

Most cities and counties have let non-conforming signs remain for a certain period of time, allowing communities to phase in new standards for billboards aimed at improving appearances.

Goldsboro's current zoning ordinance allows non-conforming signs to be "grandfathered in," but restricts billboard owners from making any changes to the height or width of those signs.

But if the city decided to change its ordinance to remove non-conforming signs, it would have had to pay billboard owners under the bill.

Sen. John Kerr, who voted for compensating billboard owners, said that not paying companies when requiring them to remove their signs was unconstitutional.

"It was a private-property issue," Kerr said. "You can't take private property without compensation."

Kerr said that North Carolina was going against the trend in other states, as well as a federal trend, of paying compensation for billboards.

Proponents of the bill look at a billboard as real estate property, like a house, while opponents see it as personal property, like a truck.

"It's the same as if the highway wants your grandmother's house and they tell her she can live in it for seven years and then we get it free of charge," Kerr said. "That bothered a lot of people because if you condemn someone's house, you have to pay for it."

King disagrees with the analogy.

"You can't move the land owned by people to another location," he said. "But you can move a billboard to another spot."

King said that Kerr had done a tremendous job supporting Goldsboro and Wayne County, and that this was the only area where he disagreed with the senator's vote.

Kerr, who received $2,500 in campaign contributions in January from the billboard industry, said he wasn't pushing either way for the outcome.

He said he wasn't aware the billboard industry contributed to his campaign.

"A lot of people contribute to my campaign. It's public record, posted on the Web site," he said, referring to the State Board of Elections Internet site. "There was no deal struck. I thought this was better and offered more protection for cities."

He said that there were a number of current court cases disputing a community's right to amortize the billboards. Amortization is when cities and counties want to remove a billboard to let the owner keep the sign up for a few more years, thereby generating more revenue.

Kerr believed that paying for the billboards would turn out to be much cheaper for cities than taking a chance in court.

He said that the bill had been "hanging up for two years," and that he worked to reach a consensus.

"After a year, we were arguing over a very small part," he said. "I spent the last two years trying to negotiate."

But legislators were demanding a vote, and Kerr said you couldn't keep them from voting on an issue.

"The cities bowed up; they didn't want anything, and we had to work out something," he said. "At some point, you have to move on."

The bill was approved in the House by an 87 to 24 margin; the vote in the Senate was 34 to 11.

It would take a three-fifths majority vote to override Easley's veto.