Legislation could lead to more digital billboards in Missouri

Sunday, June 19, 2011 | 6:21 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's highways have several thousand fewer billboards than just a few years ago, but those that remain could become flashier under legislation forcing Gov. Jay Nixon to decide whether he views billboards as visual clutter or vital traveler tools.

Legislation pending before Nixon would allow many of Missouri's current paper-on-board signs to be converted to digital billboards or improved with better lighting and technologies. It also would let those billboards be moved — instead of torn down — during highway construction and bar local governments from prohibiting billboards, though they could still impose more stringent regulations on the size, height, lighting and spacing than set by state law.

The billboard provisions were tucked into a broader transportation bill passed on the final day of the legislative session. But the means of passage is likely less controversial than the basic premise of whether Missouri wants to allow the proliferation of flashy, digital signs or continue on its current course of encouraging billboards to come down.

Nixon hasn't publicly commented about the legislation, but his staff has had conversations with people urging him both to sign and veto it.

When Missouri enacted its first billboard laws in the mid-1960s, more than 57,000 signs lined state roads. As Missouri continued to toughen its regulations, the number of billboards fell to about 12,000 in 2004 and to 8,952 at the end of last month, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation.

A 1999 law barred new double-decker billboards, reduced the maximum size of billboards and increased the minimum space between new signs. A 2002 law increased the minimum distance between new billboards again, from 500 feet to 1,400 feet. That change means just three billboards can be built along every mile of highway — down significantly from the prior standard of 10 per mile. Old billboards that don't meet the new requirements can remain, but they cannot be replaced or improved.

In 2008, a state appeals court ruled that a law allowing cities to impose more stringent regulations than set by state law meant that Platte City — and other towns — could adopt an outright ban on new billboards.

The bill pending before Nixon would essentially reverse that court ruling by preventing local governments from prohibiting billboards on commercial property within 660 feet of many federal and state highways. The legislation also would allow improvements to many billboards that no longer comply with state law, such as those closer together than 1,400 feet. If local ordinances also allow it, those billboards could go digital, gain new cutouts and extensions or install solar panels and new lighting.

The prospect for more digital signs — which flash every few seconds among different ads — is one of the reasons why Scenic Missouri wants Nixon to veto the bill. The group contends the flashing signs district drivers for prolonged periods, increasing the potential for traffic crashes, and further add to the visual clutter.

"We believe the landscape already is at a breaking point for billboard blight, and we cannot afford any further weakening of the law," said John Regenbogen, executive director of Scenic Missouri.

The billboard industry contends an increase in digital signs could lead to a further decrease in total billboards because one digital sign can accommodate several advertisers at a time.

The Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association also says another provision in the bill could save the state tens of millions of dollars over the coming years by allowing billboards not in compliance with current laws to be relocated — instead of torn down — during highway construction. That could particularly come into play if Missouri ever follows through on plans to rebuild Interstate 70 and Interstate 44 — something for which the state currently lacks money.

When billboards are condemned, the government pays a fair market value. One billboard recently torn down because of highway construction near Kansas City had been appraised at $288,000 but could have been moved for less than $25,000, said Bill May, executive director and general counsel of the Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association.

Scenic Missouri contends it's worth the extra taxpayer money to clear away billboards.

Eighty percent of Missouri's billboards are considered to be out-of-compliance with current state law, and many of those would fall under a new category created by the legislation allowing billboards to be moved during construction or improved with new technology, said Joyce Musick, the outdoor advertising manager at MoDOT.

Although Scenic Missouri maintains that the state would appear more attractive to tourists without the signs, the billboard industry contends the continued existence of those signs is vital for restaurants, motels and other tourist attractions.

"To those thousands and thousands of businesses out there that totally rely on billboards, a road construction project that took out most of the billboards along the highway would be devastating," May said.

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