Watauga Commissioners Vote 3-2 Along Party Lines To Regulate Rather Than Prohibit New Billboards Tuesday

Published Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 4:20 pm

By Jesse Wood

Sept. 17, 2013. At Tuesday night’s Watauga County Board of Commissioners meeting, Chair Nathan Miller and Commissioner Billy Kennedy went back and forth regarding amendments to the county’s sign ordinance that would regulate – instead of prohibit – new billboards.

After much discussion and a public hearing, the commissioners voted along party lines to allow the installation of new billboards. Republican Commissioners David Blust, Perry Yates and Miller voted to accept the amendments proposed by the planning board while Commissioners John Welch and Kennedy voted against the measure.  

In April, Watauga County Planning & Inspections Director Joe Furman presented proposed amendments to the ordinance pertaining to agriculture business signage – at which time Chair Nathan Miller requested the planning board also 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 several billboards were damaged during extreme winds in excess of 100 mph that occurred in late-December 2012. Under the ordinance, if a sign was damaged to certain extent, a new permit would be required. However, new permits aren’t allowed, and since the ordinance was amended in 2009, severe damage to billboards has been a cause of concern among landowners with billboards on their property.

That and along with the fact that landowners who would want to lease their property for a new billboard to make some extra money could not do so did not sit well with Miller.

Miller reiterated his position once again on Tuesday, while Kennedy noted that “people come here to see mountains.”

“They don’t want to see Gatlinburg,” Kennedy said, adding that in his opinion billboards actually decrease the value of the land.

Miller disagreed and said that Kennedy would rather control people’s land. Kennedy argued that he was “protecting” people’s land.

“I think people make better decisions than government,” Miller retorted.

 Only one person spoke at the public hearing, and that was Susie Winters, who spoke on behalf of “beauty” of the region and said that beauty of the mountains is the reason tourists come to the High Country. She said there are times when the “community good” outweighs the personal benefits one might accrue through billboard advertisement on personal land.

Welch, who in a previous interview noted that he had reservations of the High Country resembling Gatlinburg, mentioned that he would like to table any action on the billboard amendments to further “digest” the changes, however the Republican board members overrode his request.

In the end before the vote, Kennedy echoed Winters’ remarks.

“This is not doing our county justice. We have to look at the benefit of a very few [versus] the cost of everybody else. It seems typical of what’s going on these days and I am appalled about it,” Kennedy said.

To which Miller retorted, “I am appalled about what the government says you can and can’t do with your property.”   

The 3-2 vote ensued.

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.

Read the entire ordinance with proposed changes noted in red.

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