BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for July 29, 2010
East End Connector passes NCDOT prioritization hurdle, on track for fall 2013 start

City, County see Aug. votes on hotly debated billboard industry proposal

Billboards  The debate over digital billboards in Durham has been ongoing for over two years now.  

All things in life must end, however -- the billboard debate included.  

Durham's City Council and the Board of County Commissioners will be voting independently on Fairway’s proposed changes to Durham’s sign ordinances at their next meetings, Aug. 2 and Aug. 9 respectively. 

Fairway seeks to allow replacement of all billboards in Durham, with up to one-fourth of these signs being replaced with digital displays that change message every eight seconds.

Next week marks the beginning of the end of that long debate, which has seen warring web sites, opposing results from opinion polls, email campaigns and non-profit lobbying, plus the recently-debated appearance of a little-known City-Wide PAC group in the voting mix.

Will the industry's lobbying effort pay off? Or will a group of residents fighting the mix -- including some of the citizens who first lobbied themselves for a Durham anti-billboard measure in the 80s -- prevail?

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First, some background.

Durham’s current billboard ordinances came into being in 1984, when the city banned all new billboards and relegated existing billboards to a nonconforming use status.  The nonconforming status meant that all work done on the structures could be maintenance only, forcing removal when their repair costs exceed 25% of replacement value.

The ordinances were written with an eye toward removing all billboards in Durham County, with the ordinance is working at a slow, natural pace.  

Of the 200 billboards in Durham County in 1984, only 89 remain.  Durham’s attrition rate is expected to best the national average over the next few years, mostly due to road improvements like the East End Connector, which is anticipated to remove up to eight billboards.

As billboards have languished in Durham, however, a technology upgrade has put them back on the roadmap (literally) at a national level. In recent years, digital billboards have come in vogue as a method for billboard owners to increase revenue. 

Instead of a single, static image that changes perhaps monthly, digital billboards are programmed to change every eight seconds.  Many cities’ sign ordinances were mum on digital billboards, causing a rush in several municipalities to quickly pass new rules to ban their erection (this topic is covered well in a side-bar in this month’s issue of Planning, access to which is unfortunately limited to APA members).

Durham’s ordinance bans improvements costing more than 25% of a sign’s replacement value, thus far preventing the emergence of digital signs.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Two years ago, representatives from Fairway Outdoor Advertising began seeking ordinance changes that would allow digital billboards.  Fairway first approached City Council with the idea; City Council sent Fairway to gather public support before continuing. (This meeting produced one of more memorable CC quotes as of late: Councilman Woodard warned Fairway to wear their asbestos jumpsuit during their maneuvering for public support.)

The latest push in the billboard battle began eight months ago, when Fairway’s law firm, K&L Gates, formally submitted a request for the creation of a “billboard overlay district”.  

This overlay district would allow billboard owners to move existing billboards to other highway corridors, as long as it is 1,000 feet from another billboard, 500 feet from a historic district, and 200 feet from a residential property.  Additionally, 25% of billboards could be converted to digital technology.  

Observers note Fairway’s proposed ordinance would change the nature of billboard policy in Durham; instead of sign ordinances targeting the eventual removal of all billboards, billboards will flourish in perpetuity at their current number.

Critics have challenged the industry's efforts to raise community support, most notably pointing to the close ties between Fairway and supporters of the ordinance. One prominent example includes PAC-1 facilitator Wanda Boone, whose group Durham TRY received free advertising space from Fairway last year.  

Fairway has also stressed their proposal to use billboards to display public safety information and public service announcements, including Amber and Silver Alert messages, though municipal officials have noted there is no way to legislate what percentage of ad time must be allocated to these messages.

While pro-bono's and the promises of free signage for public safety alerts have earned endorsements from some community activists, the Sheriff, and non-profits, a wide range of Durham's community groups, including Durham INC and numerous neighborhood associations, have come out opposed to changes to Durham’s sign ordinance.

The Durham Planning Commission, which is made up of both city and county residents, voted unanimously against the proposed changes at their April meeting.  In preparation for this meeting, Julia Mullen, a planner for the City/County Planning Department, wrote an excellent point-by-point argument against Fairway’s proposed changes.

Opponents of the billboard overlay fear that digital billboards will be a source of blight in the community. If Fairway is allowed to replace or move existing billboards, areas that have successfully ridden themselves of billboards (such as areas near downtown, I-40, and urban core section of I-85) would again suffer from the visual pollution.

Proponents point to several supposed benefits of billboards, primary of which is increased tax revenue, though the City/County Planning Department notes that the total tax revenue from digital will be, at most, $60,000 a year, a miniscule sum in comparison to the city and county budget.  

Fairway also claims that billboards also serve as economic development tools, guiding visitors to local businesses.  Billboard opponents, however, point to the wealth of tobacco, liquor, and adult establishment advertising on billboards in other communities. Additionally, because Fairway operates in 22 states, they are more likely to sign system-wide advertising contracts that advertise national brands across multiple markets.

Another point of contention is Fairway’s claim that digital billboards are “energy efficient.”  Although LED-based billboards are more efficient than other display technologies, each billboard uses the same amount of energy as 13 average-sized homes.  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

All of these arguments are secondary to the biggest reason local government may fear changing the ordinance: litigation.

After adoption of the 1984 ordinance, Durham spent more than a million dollars defending itself against lawsuits filed by the billboard industry. As a result of this litigation, Durham now has a legally defensible off-premise sign ordinance.  

The City/County Planning Department notes that Fairway’s proposal cannot be adopted as submitted, and would require a number of changes to make it lawful within the current UDO architecture. These necessary changes could be challenged by Fairway and others, the department says, forcing Durham to defend itself against yet another series of costly litigation.

Expect to see two more multi-hour public hearings in Durham over the next two weeks.    

Fairway’s proposed zoning changes go in front City Council on Monday, August 2; the Board of County Commissioners will vote on the overlay on August 9.

Photo credit: Flickr, available for reuse via Creative Commons.


Rodrigo "El Justiciero" Dorfman

It all boils down to a very simple equation:

Any elected official who agrees to change the Billboard Ordinance is committing political suicide.


I'm afraid that Joe Bowser could commit literal suicide and still be reelected in 2012.

Rodrigo "El Justiciero" Dorfman

Yes, I was going to mention that but I did not want to remind myself that there are plenty of durham voters who don't pay attention to anything other than the color of a man's skin. But since you mentioned it - I'll second that observation.

Fortunately - it's a minority.

Todd Patton

Making any changes to the current billboard ordinance would be crazy - it would just open Durham up to lawsuits from the big corporate billboard companies to try to open even more cracks in our rules.

Both the city and the county need to leave the ordinance alone.


This whole thing baffles me.

Seems to me like Durham already has a good policy in place. Why anyone who doesn't work with or for the billboard industry would want to change it is beyond me.

Why the CC didn't just say no at the beginning and move on to something more important also surprises me.


Does any political group, who isn't set to get free advertising (bribes), support the billboard changes? I can't think of one on a philosophical basis, although as I commented before, I might be able to live with one at the county lines on I40 & I85, or 15/501 up to Person county. Why can't that be enough?

They're not an expression of high-tech. They consume a lot of energy and emit significant light pollution. They are fascinating to watch, if you don't have much else to do. A better high-tech option would be to increase the number of LED highway status boards installed by DOT to run public announcements, alerts, or even DPAC/DBAP schedules. They are less energy intensive and could be run off of adjacent photovoltaic panels (which expresses high-tech). Both PV and LED are in my line of work, BTW. They wouldn't be suitable for liquor, tobacco, adult advertising obviously, but who wants more of that?

It's time to put this debate to an end if you can't find supporters who have little to benefit. Either accept a compromise that puts one of these things way outside of town on the interstate, or don't change the ordinance. If the vote is no, then it should signal no further hearings for a very long time.


Can we move on already - I can't believe this topic has been debated for 2 years now. What a monumental waste of time and electrons.

John Schelp

Many share the frustration of how long this has taken. Keep in mind, though, we didn't drag this out. The billboard industry did.

There is no compelling reason to overturn Durham's billboard ban. More info... http://supportdurhambillboardban.com


To all of you who wants this to go away, remember who Fairway's attorneys are: K&L Gates, the same firm who brought you all the political pranks last week and this on the 751 South project.

Their philosophy is simple: stall and delay, try sleazy tactics, and wear the public down.

Let's not let them wear us down on billboards or 751. Neither idea is good for our community.

Kelly Jarrett

Some of the best community theater in Durham recently was the HILARIOUS aftermath of the botched city-wide PAC endorse press conference. Their crowning achievement of city wide support was revealed to be an entirely Fairway-engineered charade that boiled down to three people who represented no one but themselves. Quid pro who's and manipulations came to light. And we saw all their shady tactics revealed in front of God and everybody. Surely even Joe Bowser could understand it.


Let's start a PAC and sue Fairway for wasting our tax dollars by forcing our government to continually review and ultimately deny the installation of Electronic Billboards. Since Fairway is only able to focus on money, let's take theirs to replace what they have stolen from us....

Any lawyers out there?? I only wish it would be a simple case, I suspect no case law exists to support the idea but how fun any way.


I see Durham as a progressive place. The technology of billboards has clearly changed. A progressive view would be to change a deal cut 20 years ago to take advantage of the new world. Why can't a deal be reached were many of these old delapidated and truely unattractive billboards are taken down and a very few of the electronic ones get put up at specfic strategic locations. The result would allow our community to make a move forward and minimally experience the new technology (a more informative, environmentally consious one). Then in say a decade decide if that was a good move or not. Just a though, or are we so wedded to that 20 year old deal and fight that we don't want to think foward.

One quick observation, I've noticed one of these electonic billboards off of I-85 in Greensboro. Not sure how I feel about it but it wasn't terrible, it wasn't the sort of distraction that would cause accidents, and it provided more info then the old fashion static one's. Hey, that's my take.

Steve Bocckino


Energy conscious? Really?

A digital billboard uses 6-10 times as much energy as a single family house.

Erik Landfried

Good try Fairway, er, "Chuck".

Ann Awnemousse

Chuck, a couple of thoughts:

1) There's no ten-year review process for something like this. The rules change, they change forever, or Durham will be stuck in litigation for time immemorial. Just like two decades ago.

2) Plenty of progressive places have banned billboards or electronic billboards. Maine, Vermont, Montana; Denver, recently. Knoxville.

Cary doesn't allow these. Raleigh doesn't allow these. Why?

If we allow these, we're turning Durham into the laughingstock of the Triangle.


Chuck - if we take your advice, and then decide in 10 years that we don't like these things, we have to pay the billboard owners their lost revenue over their remaining life to condemn and remove them, not their actual cost or their tax value.

That could mean tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

Durham citizens would be better off pooling their money and playing at those new internet sweepstakes cafes than taking that bet.


Chuck does make a good point - if we had electronic billboards, then we could have billboard with a clock counting the hours it's taken Lowell Siler to decide whether the 751 South easement revocation is legal. We're nearing 150 hours or triple what he said he needed...


Marc, you must be a lawyer and one who's had experience as a county attorney and who knows all the ins and outs for NC General Statutes that regulate the Department of Transportation as it has mophed over the last year. Maybe you don't have this wealth of experience. So why don't you let him do the job he is paid to do. Don't you want him to be correct more than you want him to be fast?


Couple of rebutal points, a) while electronic billboards use energy they can be set up to run off of solar engergy only; b) the negotiation could include at ten year sunset -- you get outdoor to buy into the sunset on the front side -- therefore eliminatinig the theat of litigation long term; c) I don see Raleigh or Cary as progressive communities (neither have particuarly progressive land use programs -- sprawl and cul-de-sac are not models for the future -- Knoxville??? please

Got any more "stuff" . . . please.


I'm not the one who said I needed 48 hours to make a decision on the 751 South easement revocation -- that was Mr. Siler. In a case with such a strong public interest, now that the legality decision has taken more than three times longer than expected, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for an update on the decision process. I also don't think it's unreasonable to inform the public why the decision is taking much longer than expected and what else needs to occur before it is finalized.


Methinks Chuck doth protest too much.

First, he's gotta protect his staff at NCDOT for caving in to the K&L boys, then having to backtrack when the Guv blew a gasket.

Now he's defending these energy-sucking, distracting litters on sticks?

Chuck, please concentrate on getting DOT to pave our roads--and stay away from meetings with developers, land use attorneys, billboard execs, and their lobbyists. It doesn't become you.


Do you know many solar panels would be required to provide 6-10 single family homes worth of electricity for one of these billboards, and where they would go? Give us a break, you don't even know your own issue.


Thomas, you are full of innuendo but no facts to back it up. I think I am allowed to have opinions without any such innuendos being suggested. I don't think it becomes you or this discussion to engage in that sort of ad hominem attack. Or maybe you want to but your stuff on the table . . .

Peace out


Bb, I'm not an expert but this is 2010 and solar billboards just seem possible to me. But the web is a wonderful thing. Check this out: http://www.brighterenergy.org/11347/news/solar/times-square-gains-first-100-solar-powered-billboard/

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