During the 2011 General Assembly session, the outdoor advertising lobby successfully passed HB 179 to provide for enhanced vegetation management of the Rights of Way along Georgia highways. The legislation establishes a permit process for billboard companies to request approval to clear cut the vegetation that either blocks or potentially blocks the view of billboards. Unsuccessful attempts for such legislation by the industry and Georgia DOT eliminating height restrictions over the prior decade resulted in the billboard industry’s erection of billboards up to 100 plus feet above the trees lining many of Georgia’s highways. In exchange, the industry committed, and the legislation provided, that the signs with clear-cuts would be lowered to a maximum of 75 feet in height. Significantly, the legislation does not negate or override local sign ordinances, including height restrictions.
However, if the local ordinance of a municipality or county has a sign ordinance designating billboards as being non-conforming and no alterations to non-conforming billboards are allowed, then the sign company is not obligated to lower the billboard. The result is that trees are clear-cut and the extraordinarily tall signs erected by the clear-cut permittees remain, contrary to the intent of HB 179.
Among other issues, HB 179 also provides that:
What have we learned?
- A view zone measured as 350 feet along the road and 250 feet along the back of the rights of way can be clear cut of all vegetation.
- Sign companies must retain a licensed arborist to inventory the trees in the view zone with a separate count and diameter of pine and hardwood trees to establish the value of the trees being cut.
- Sign companies must reimburse the state of Georgia for the value of the trees clear cut.
- Trees that are older than 75 years (specimen trees), historic and landmark trees are exempt from the cutting.
- No beautification projects by local governments can be initiated within the clear-cut view zones.
There have been more than 570 permit applications in the state.
In the opinion of Georgia Department of Transportation, a local sign ordinance that prohibits alterations to a billboard does not prevent the sign company from obtaining a tree clear-cutting permit.
Multiple signs spaced at 500 feet increments can result in thousands of feet of cleared trees along Georgia roads and highways since the view zones will overlap.
The sign company arborist was not required to identify potential trees that would be exempted by the provisions of HB 179. (This has now been changed after Scenic Georgia identified the omission).
What should municipalities do?
Cities should review their sign ordinance to determine the impact of HB 179, specifically whether existing billboards with clear-cut permits issued by the state would be a change in a non-conforming use. The Scenic Georgia website, scenicga.org, has a list of the permit applications.
If a jurisdiction has non-conforming billboards, city officials should consider amending the ordinance to allow and require changes to lower the signs to 75 feet or a lesser height (e.g. city-wide height restriction) if the state approves clear-cut vegetation management permits.
Use this opportunity to consider other changes to the sign ordinances to reflect changes in legal precedent and emerging sign technology and distraction to drivers, such as a ban or limits on additional static or digital/LED signs. Swapping several static boards in exchange for one digital sign permit is one trend among Georgia cities and counties and across the nation to address these challenges.