Billboard/Vegetation Management Law Has Implications for Cities

January 8, 2015

Wilton Rooks, Executive Director, Scenic Georgia, Inc.



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:
 
  • 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.
What have we learned?
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.

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