By Jesse Wood
April 2, 2013. It’s been more than three years since the permitting and construction of new billboards was outlawed in Watauga County.
That may change though.
On Tuesday morning, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners unexpectedly directed the Planning Commission to take another look at the ordinance, which was amended in October of 2009 and states “newly erected advertising signs shall not be permitted.”
Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman was speaking before the board about recommended amendments to the ordinance that would accommodate agricultural business signage, such as choose-and-cut farms and other “housekeeping changes” – when the topic of discussion quickly veered towards the language that bans all new advertising signs.
“I think it’s worth a discussion. Do we want to hinder advertisements of local businesses, hinder people using their land along roads to make a little extra cash, especially on a steep hillside that they can’t use for anything else,” Chairman Nathan Miller said. “An outright ban to me seems a little capricious.”
Commissioner Billy Kennedy interjected that the signs may not be advertising local businesses.
Miller said, “That may be, but some local taxpayer owns that property.”
During the meeting, Furman gave a little background into the ordinance that was initially instated in 1983 to mimic N.C. Department of Transportation outdoor signage regulations.
Furman said that before the billboard moratorium, the planning board met – at the request of the commissioners elected at the time – when electronic billboards began to pop up several years ago in the High Country. The planning board proposed regulations on digital signs, and the commissioners extended those recommendations to prohibit all new signs.
“The board at the time said, ‘Let’s just not allow any billboards at all, including electronic ones and no upgrades,” Furman said. “Prior to that time there were limitations on size and locations of premises’ signs similar to limitations that Department of Transportation has.”
On Tuesday, Miller said, “I would like to see – electronic billboards, I know, are a different breed of animal – but as for stagnant signs, I would like to see a process where new billboards could be erected.”
Furman said that the process to adopt any changes would include setting a hearing for the proposed changes and following the hearing adopt changes as presented to go back to pre-2009 rules, where state guidelines for billboards would be followed.
Brandon Greer, an NCDOT technician, noted one such state regulation, which is already in effect: outdoor advertising signs are not permitted along scenic highway or byway routes in accordance to general statutes.
Those routes include the scenic byway on the portion of U.S. 421 in between Boone and Deep Gap; the Mission Crossing byway on N.C. 194 that begins near Cranberry in Avery County and ends in Vilas; and the route known as Little Parkway of Yonahlossee Trail on U.S. 221 that connects Linville to Blowing Rock.
After Miller mentioned what he would like to see happen, Kennedy responded that he would like to see the ordinance go back to the planning board, where each board member has a representative.
“That’s a diverse group on there, and it would give the public a little more chance to weigh in on the issue,” Kennedy said.
Miller responded, “I have no problem with that.”
Commissioner Perry Yates made a motion, which Kennedy seconded, to send the ordinance back to the planning commission. The motion passed unanimously.
The issue of billboard permit ban recently came up in December after extreme winds blew through the High Country in excess of 100 mph, damaging six billboards.
Landowners with billboards on their property were concerned because if a billboard is damaged to certain extent, a new permit must be applied for to replace the damaged sign. Well, under the current ordinance a permit wouldn’t have been granted – and a source of income for the property owners would have been lost, said Jamie Machut, vice president of Lamar Outdoor Advertising.
As Machut told High Country Press a few months ago, “The landowners are in absolute fear of that happening.”
Here are pictures of billboards damaged in late December: