Roadside billboard bill bound for full Senate

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Rep. D.J. Johnson, R-Owensboro, speaking on House Bill 328, legislation he introduced concerning roadside billboard regulations.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – A bill that would rein in the rapid and unregulated erecting of roadside billboards across Kentucky advanced Wednesday out of the Senate Transportation Committee.

The measure, known as House Bill 328, would do this by re-establishing the state’s regulatory authority for roadside billboards. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. D.J. Johnson, R-Owensboro, said a federal court ruling recently called the state’s prior regulations into question. Johnson said HB 238 would also be the first step in meeting federal requirements for providing state regulations for billboards.

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“Without state regulations of the billboards, we are at risk of losing as much as $70 million in (federal) transportation funding,” he said.

In response to a question from Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, Johnson said HB 328 would not prohibit local communities from having their own billboard restrictions.

Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, expressed concern for landowners who have signed lucrative leases with companies to erect billboards on their property since the court ruling.

Johnson said HB 328 would not address that issue. “We really got to get the constitutional authority re-established,” he said. “We didn’t want to try to see the future as what would be done with that. We see this as a two-step process.”

Sen. Phillip Wheeler, R-Pikeville, echoed Wilson’s concerns. Wheeler said he would support a floor amendment to grandfather in any billboard erected since the court ruling to protect landowners who might have already received lease payments.

“I’m not as concerned for the companies, but I am concerned for the landowners,” Wheeler said. “A lot of them are not lawyers and they may have entered into agreements in reliance on the belief they were acting in compliance with the law.”

Johnson said the concerns of property owners could be addressed at a future date. He said out-of-state billboard operators shouldn’t be given a pass for exploiting the vacuum the court ruling created.

“I personally don’t like the idea of giving them a free pass when the businesses in our state have – for years – followed the rules,” Johnson said. He added that the problem has been exacerbated because many of the new billboards being erected do not even comply with the old regulations.

Leigh Ann Thacker, a lobbyist for the Outdoor Advertising Association of Kentucky, testified in support of HB 328. One concern has been that the new billboards are decreasing the value of the older billboards, erected under the former regulations. Wilson added that the billboard leases are so valuable to Kentucky landowners they are often passed down from generation to generation.

Kentucky Resources Council Director Tom FitzGerald, who also testified in support of HB 328, quipped that it was the rare occasion he was in agreement with the outdoor advertising association. FitzGerald explained that Kentucky had regulated outdoor advertising along certain routes, such as the state’s parkways, since the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. That bill was a priority of President Lyndon B. Johnson with his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, as the act’s No. 1 proponent.

Sen. David Yates, D-Louisville, asked how many billboards have been erected since the court ruling. Thacker estimated that 100 billboards had gone up. She added that when a court ruling also found Tennessee’s billboard regulations unconstitutional, over 250 billboards went up in that state before the regulations could be re-established.

In response to a question from committee chair Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, Thacker said HB 328 was modeled after the Tennessee legislation re-establishing that state’s billboard regs.