Proposed state billboard legislation worries local officials

A digital billboard along S.C. 170 in Okatie represents a trend in advertising. This billboard is in Jasper County. Such signs are not permitted in Beaufort County.
A digital billboard along S.C. 170 in Okatie represents a trend in advertising. This billboard is in Jasper County. Such signs are not permitted in Beaufort County. JONATHAN DYER | The Island Packet

If companion bills in the state General Assembly are passed, brightly lit, digital billboards like the one on S.C. 170 on the Jasper County side of Okatie could be built in Beaufort County, too -- despite a county policy that bans them, county council chairman Weston Newton said Tuesday.

"We've been approached by billboard companies about taking down their old paper billboards and replacing them with the big-screen televisions," Newton said. "We've outlawed billboards period in Beaufort County as something we did not want cluttering our roadways. If that decision is now going to be made from Columbia, it's usurping home rule."

Senate Bill 166, sponsored by Sen. George "Chip" Campsen of Berkeley and Charleston counties, and House Bill 3814, sponsored by Reps. Merita Allison, J. Derham Cole, Michael Forrester, R. Keith Kelly and Steve Parker, all of Spartanburg County, would authorize the state Department of Transportation to start a highway beautification pilot project that would reduce the number of billboards that do not meet standards set by the ever-evolving federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965. Signs that are not properly permitted, obsolete, dirty, in disrepair or not securely tied down are considered "non-conforming."

The bills also would offer billboard owners a compromise -- for taking down two non-conforming billboards, they could put up one billboard that did meet federal rules, including both metal and digital designs. The bills do not stipulate where the new billboard would have to go.

Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, said she plans to attend a House Education and Public Works Committee hearing today on the bill and has talked with its sponsors, who said the pilot project would include only billboards along Interstates 95 and 26.

If the project is restricted to those areas, she is inclined to support the bill -- particularly because fellow Lowcountry legislator Campsen sponsored the Senate version.

Lawmakers have to strike a balance between protecting a business' ability to advertise and protecting the natural beauty and aesthetics that draw people to this area, Erickson said.

"The idea of the legislation is to get rid of those falling-down pieces that are just eyesores," Erickson said. "We know that for Beaufort County it's a real touchy issue. We don't want to see any lowering of the standards that Beaufort County has in place."

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said he also has been monitoring the bills' progress. The Senate version was approved by the Transportation Committee on April 15.

"The bills need to be revised to make sure the state doesn't have the power to override reasonable county and local regulations in regard to billboards," said Davis, who would vote against them if that provision was not included. "It's important that we let local governments retain that power."

Meanwhile, digital billboards have grown in popularity nationwide. Advertisers say they are highly effective, but the billboards have also drawn the ire of those who say the flashing images are a dangerous distraction for drivers and a blight on otherwise scenic highways.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," said Jeff Golimowski, spokesman for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. "Digital billboards are safety neutral. They are not correlatedwith traffic accidents, and they are not overly distracting to drivers. They offer unparalleled flexibility and nimbleness to advertisers. Literally, the copy can be changed with the click of a mouse."

Newton still isn't convinced they're right for Beaufort County, where the only billboards still here were grandfathered in before the ban was enacted more than 20 years ago.

"I don't believe that big-screen televisions are an improvement to (what) is already outlawed," he said.