Trees v. Billboards On NC Highways
North Carolina could be trading trees for billboards under a new proposal now being considered by state lawmakers. Driving along a North Carolina highway can sometimes give the impression of a green tunnel, with tall trees on either side, and just a slice of blue above. It's striking for visitors. "People's first and last impression of a community is largely shaped by the views from our roadways," says Ben Hitchings, planning director for the town of Morrisville in Wake County. Hitchings is also a member of the North Carolina chapter of the American Planning Association which - a long with a number of citizen and environmental groups - is mobilizing in opposition to Senate Bill 183. The measure gives billboard owners the right to cut down more trees and shrubs in front of their signs - up to 400 feet along the state-owned strip known as a "right of way." "I see it as a pro-business bill and a fairness bill at the same time," says the bill's sponsor, Senator Harry Brown, a Republican car dealer from Jacksonville. "The billboard companies get permits to build these signs and have those investments and then as vegetation grows, it can grow in front of their signs where they're just unusable." Billboard companies would still need a permit from the state to cut down vegetation, but they would no longer need the permission of local governments that have stricter billboard and tree ordinances. That's not a position the transportation department wants to be in, says spokeswoman Greer Beatty. "People in the community - we believe strongly - should have the right to determine how they want their community to grow and how they want their community to look and feel," says Beatty. "We don't believe it's our place to intercede in that." Despite that concern, Beatty says the department is not actively opposing Senate Bill 183. Another controversial clause in the measure would allow electronic billboards every 1,500 feet on all state and federal highways - regardless of city and county rules that may prohibit such signs. Charlotte approved digital billboards in 2007, but many communities still ban them for fear they distract drivers.