Signing Off County adopts new billboard ban
No new billboards can be legally erected in Watauga County
after the county board of commissioners passed a revision to ban future signs Tuesday
The board approved a revision to the sign ordinance that not only precludes any new traditional billboards, but also prevents the replacement of existing billboards with any new digital billboards. The three existing digital billboards in the county would remain in place unless they were either removed or damaged enough to fall out of compliance with the ordinance.
The original revision proposal would have allowed billboard owners to replace their standard billboards with electronic variable message signs, but after meeting in closed session, the commissioners struck that provision from the ordinance and added a provision that no new electronic message signs would be permitted.
The commissioners held a public hearing Tuesday night on proposed revisions to the sign ordinance, with eight people giving input shortly before the commissioners voted on the matter.
Brad Moretz, general manager of Appalachian Ski Mountain, said his business supported limits on digital billboard advertising. Moretz said any further restrictions on billboards that were damaged would hurt tourism and local businesses. However, he supported the proposed ordinance that would ban billboards but didn't want to lose existing billboards.
Susie Winters of Deep Gap said she was concerned about the county losing its scenic designation for U.S. 421 in the eastern end of the county. She said she was concerned about digital billboards, particularly one near Old U.S. 421 that started much of the original controversy. She supported the removal of that billboard, even if the county had to pay for it.
"I feel like as a community we're more than commerce, and we have to get that through our skulls," Winters said.
Susan Miller of Vilas described scenic views and landscapes and said billboards blocked those views and interfered with people's connection to the natural world. She said the county's roads could be as uncluttered as those on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She said lighted signs were "dominating the skyline and daring us not to look" and she supported a billboard ban.
Dwight Miller said controlling outdoor advertising would help preserve the value of natural scenery. "There are other ways (to advertise)," he said.
Craig Justus, an attorney for Lamar Outdoor Advertising of Asheville, said Lamar didn't oppose a ban on future billboards but said the three existing digital billboards were protected by law and can't be retroactively regulated. Justus said any new operational rules also can't be applied to existing signs.
Jamie Machut, general manager of Lamar Outdoor Advertising, said, "I believe there's a place for us in the High Country." He said all the existing digital billboards had met all standards and regulations at the time they were built.
Machut said his company had not only served its advertising businesses, but had provided public service announcements. He said businesses needed billboards to help the local economy. "I believe these signs belong here," he said.
Donna Duke of Boone said she'd lived in the area for 41 years and said the billboards captured her attention but she rarely remembered the messages. "I really question the need for more big signs," Duke said.
Wayne Davis of Deep Gap said businesses and churches should be able to have signs and was told churches and schools were exempt from the ordinance.
The commissioners placed a moratorium on digital billboards in 2008, asking the planning board to review the sign ordinance. During deliberations, the planning board asked for two more extensions of the moratorium, with the last one set to expire Friday. The planning board also proposed a ban on all billboards, but allowed existing billboards to be replaced with digital billboards as long as they met criteria for placement, brightness, and buffering.
The revised ordinance also says, "Internal illumination shall not be at an intensity that is distracting to vehicular traffic." The county also retains "ongoing discretion" to regulate brightness, frequency, colors or other digital sign qualities if there are any safety concerns.
Commission chairman Jim Deal said he welcomed public input, and though he opposed new billboards, he said the input was important in guiding decisions.
The commissioners also held a hearing on the proposed changes to flood-damage prevention ordinance. The ordinance requires amendments because of new flood maps developed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency that take effect Dec. 3.
The maps are mandatory, said planning director Joe Furman, and were the result of two years of hydrology studies. Adoption of the ordinance allows county residents to be eligible for national flood insurance.
The commissioners also considered a bid of $320,000 from Opal Mayfield for a house and property adjoining the new high school property. No upset bids had been submitted for the property, which had been purchased as part of the 90-acre high school tract. The commissioners approved the bid.
The commissioners also appointed Gene Vandiford to the Community Advisory Committee for Adult Care Homes and Mike Presnell and Virginia Ward to the Voluntary Farmland Preservation Program Advisory Board.