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Outdoor ad industry sees hopeful sign in legislature

But some fear for the ‘city of trees’

Kevin Madrzykowski, general manager for Adams Outdoor Advertising in Charlotte, says he hears it from his clients daily: complaints about trees growing in front of billboards.

The foliage gone wild makes it hard for motorists to see the advertisements, which companies can pay tens of thousands of dollars for a month. When his clients call, asking Madrzykowski to do something about the troublesome vegetation, he tells them he can’t so much as touch a leaf.

“We either have to credit money back to the client or find another piece of inventory for them,” he said.

He said many times state transportation department and local laws prevent his and other outdoor advertising companies from hacking away at the trees to make the ads visible.

That might not be the case forever.

A bill in the state Senate aims to allow the outdoor advertising industry to prune trees and vegetation that get in the way of billboards on state roads and highways.

“We are looking for something that’s fair and right and reasonable,” Madrzykowski said.

But Senate Bill 183 isn’t growing on the Sierra Club and officials with the city of Charlotte, which, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce declares on its website, is “a city of trees.”

Dana Fenton, intergovernmental relations manager for the city, said there are “holes” in the bill. As is, it would “essentially nearly allow for vegetation to be clear-cut,” he said.

“Local governments around the state are very concerned about how we look and how we present ourselves to the outside world,” he said. “Clear-cutting is simply not a good thing.”

Changes sought

Outdoor advertising campaigns can cost a company between $1,000 and $100,000 a month, depending on the billboard’s location, among other factors.

Madrzykowski’s company has 1,500 billboards in the Charlotte region: north to Statesville, south to Rock Hill, east to Rockingham and west to Hickory.

North Carolina has some of the most restrictive laws concerning billboards in the Southeast, according to some in the outdoor advertising industry.

The bill aims to change that by allowing vegetation to be trimmed to allow a larger view corridor – basically, the space around a billboard.

Tony Adams, executive director for the North Carolina Outdoor Advertising Association, said North Carolina’s law dictating the size of the view corridor is more restrictive than other Southern states.

In Virginia, the corridor can be 500 feet or more, he said. Tennessee, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana allow outdoor advertising companies to have a view corridor of at least 500 feet, he said. South Carolina and Georgia have 500-foot view corridors that allow for vegetation to be removed up to 350 feet in the zone, depending on the angle.

In North Carolina, the view corridor is limited to 250 feet.

The current form of the legislation would keep it to 250 feet for a billboard along a street or road controlled by a city. If the billboard is along a road controlled by the state transportation department and falls within an incorporated area, the bill allows for a view zone of 340 feet. If it’s outside an incorporated area, it can increase to 380 feet.

Shaking like a leaf

The bill has groups like the Sierra Club nervous.

Bill Gupton, president of the Charlotte-area chapter of the Sierra Club, called the bill “really, really bad.”

The bill comes at a time when state legislators seem focused on overturning many environmental laws and protections that have been in place for years, he said.

Gupton said the Sierra Club is concerned that the bill will negate the Charlotte “tree-save” ordinance that groups such as his had been working to enact in the city for years.

A billboard stands beside Interstate 277 in Charlotte May 3, 2011. A bill in the North Carolina General Assembly would allow the outdoor advertising industry to prune trees and vegetation that get in the way of billboards on state roads and highways. Photo by Tara Ramsey

Adams claims that the larger view corridor does not mean outdoor advertising companies will begin chopping down tons of trees.

Adams also claims that compromises made by the group will make SB 183 more palatable to opponents. For one, the bill would increase the initial fee per billboard for a vegetation-removal permit by $200. Other fees for billboard owners will go up, too.

If history repeats itself, the bill will wither and die.

Adams said a similar bill was written in 2007, and although it had the votes to pass the House, the speaker of the House would not let the vote go forward.

The same thing happened in 2009 and 2010, he said.

Tara Ramsey can be reached at tara.ramsey@mecktimes.com.

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