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Public Hearing To Rescind Future ‘Stagnant’ Billboard Ban in Watauga County Takes Place Tuesday, Sept. 17

By Jesse Wood

Originally published Sept. 12, 2013. Watauga County Board of Commissioners holds a public hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 17, to hear from the community about potential changes to an ordinance that regulates advertising signs in the county. 

In April, Watauga County Planning & Inspections Director Joe Furman presented proposed amendments to the ordinance with regards to agriculture business signage – at which time Chair Nathan Miller requested the planning board to consider amending the ordinance to rescind the 2009 ban of all future billboards in Watauga County.

Extreme winds damaged several billboards in late December. Photo by Ken Ketchie
Extreme winds damaged several billboards in late December. Photo by Ken Ketchie

Not in the news since the fall of 2009, the billboard ban issue came up after High Country Press reported that several billboards were damaged during extreme winds in excess of 100 mph that occurred in late-December 2012.

Under the current ordinance, if a billboard is damaged to a certain extent, a permit has to be issued to replace the damaged sign, however new permits aren’t allowed to be issued under the current ordinance. Since the ordinance was amended in 2009, damage to billboards has been a cause of concern among landowners with billboards on their property.

At the commissioner meeting in April, Miller also noted that the ban hinders local businesses and landowners from making a “little cash” by utilizing steep terrain near highways “that they can’t use for anything else.”

Miller acknowledged that electronic billboards are a “different breed of animal” but said he would like to see a process by which “stagnant” billboards could be erected in the future.

The commissioners voted unanimously for the planning board to take another look at the ordinance and come back to them with proposed changes.

Minus electronic billboards, these changes essentially revert Watauga County back to pre-2009 signage rules, which follow state guidelines for billboards. One state regulation doesn’t permit outdoor advertising signs along scenic highways or byways. These 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. 

Signs aren’t to be wider than 30 feet; higher than 35 feet from the street grade level; located outside of right-of-way of all roads; no closer than 100 feet to a pre-existing residential structure on an adjoining lot; and exceed 300 square feet in area unless otherwise approved by the planning board.

“No existing advertising signs may be converted to or replaced with a changeable electronic variable message sign. No new locations for changeable electronic variable message signs shall be permitted,” reads the new proposed changes.

Speaking last week, Commissioner John Welch said that while he hadn’t read the language of the proposed amendments to the billboard ordinance, he did have reservations about the High Country turning into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

In the 2009 public hearing before the commissioners, the natural beauty of the High Country was a dominant point for those favoring the banning of new billboards, according to High Country Press article at the time.

“It is no accident that there are no billboards on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The scenery should be the star attraction here, and all billboards do is dominate the scenery, daring us not to look,” county resident Susan Miller said, adding that billboards were bad for tourism.

Brad Moretz, general manager of Appalachian Ski Mountain, spoke at the public hearing as well. While he said his business supported limits on billboard advertising, he was concerned about further restrictions that could hurt future recreational business in Watauga County.

According to the old newspaper account, “Moretz said that, of all his other advertising methods combined, billboards are the most effective for attracting customers. He said if billboards were to be taken away, the void would hurt Appalachian Ski Mountain’s bottom line, which in turn would affect the bottom line of other businesses that make money off skiers.” 

“We’re more concerned with the future than what is going on now,” added Moretz.

Other Changes to Ordinance

Along with a few agri-business sign additions and minor language adjustments, other proposed amendments to the ordinance include an additional sentence on political signs:

“Political signs shall not be placed upon property owned and/or leased by the County or County Board of Education that are not polling places at any time,” the ordinance reads.

Read the entire ordinance with proposed changes noted in red.

Three public hearings are scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 17, in the Watauga County Administrative Building, where the commissioners meet for monthly meetings. Public hearings start at 6 p.m. A meeting notice is below:

“The purpose of the hearing is to allow public comment on proposed changes to the Ordinance to Regulate Signs in Watauga County. Proposed amendments affect the regulation of off-premise advertising signs, political signs on county property, and temporary signs.  To view the proposed amendments, please click HERE.  For information call 828-265-8043.”