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Billboard blight – coming to a highway near you

One of the authors of this guest post is John Schelp, a fellow Bull City resident and the president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association (I still march with them at NC Pride). While this is an in-town neighborhood, this op-ed discusses something many of you out there can identify with — the proliferation of electronic billboards polluting our highways. OWD and my current neighborhood are quite close to I-85 and I-40, respectively, and currently there aren’t any electronic billboards along them — and we’d like it to stay that way. How many Blenders out there live near these eyesores?

Guest column: Not enough lipstick in the Carolinas for this bad idea

By John Schelp and Larry Holt, Herald-Sun, 21 December 2008

A Georgia billboard company is asking Durham to open the door to allow electronic billboards along roadways that flash new ad images every few seconds.

They look like huge flat screen TVs on a stick — bright lights that change messages every 4-5 seconds.

The advantage of billboards for advertisers — according to Advertising Age, an industry publication — is that billboards are: “not an on-demand medium. You can’t choose to see it, you have to see it.”

Readers can see these electronic boards in the Triad and near Richmond. These bright panels dominate the night horizon. They are a distraction and a danger on Interstates and roads in congested urban areas. And we don’t need them in Durham, next to our streets, homes, and neighborhoods.

Scenic America calls electronic billboards unsafe, unsightly and un-environmental at any speed. Billboards are effective only if you look at them, they are designed to draw your eyes off the traffic in front of you. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that anything that distracts a driver for more than two seconds from the road ahead, “significantly increases the chances of crashes and near crashes.” Scenic America estimates that it takes up to 5 seconds to understand the billboard messages. (Source:

The ever-changing images on electronic billboard cause drivers eyes to linger especially long, as viewers wait to see what’s next. The billboards are especially eye-catching at night, when they are the brightest objects in the driver’s field of vision. Designed to deliberately distract drivers, these electronic billboards create an unsafe environment on the road — even for motorists who try to ignore them.

Not surprisingly, the billboard industry takes exception to these findings and has sponsored its own special studies insisting that flashing billboards are perfectly safe. But, in an embarrassing setback for the billboard companies, the Wachtel Report concluded that the industry’s studies were not supported by scientific data: “Having completed this peer review, it is our opinion that acceptance of these [industry] reports as valid is inappropriate and unsupported by scientific data, and that ordinance or code changes based on their findings is ill advised.”

More below the fold.If safety concerns alone aren’t enough to make us reject electronic billboards, there are environmental concerns and risks for Durham taxpayers. Scenic America estimates that one electronic billboard equals 108 tons/year of carbon dioxide. The carbon footprint of one of these billboards is equal to that of 13 houses. When we’re all switching our home lamps to florescent bulbs to reduce our individual carbon footprints, why would we want to increase the carbon footprint of our advertising billboards?

The Highway Beautification Act requires cash compensation if billboards ever have to be moved or taken down. Scenic America reports that “compensation is usually defined as the value of the structure, plus lost revenue, making each digital sign worth millions of dollars.” Because electronic billboard images do change, multiple companies can advertise on them simultaneously, significantly increasing their revenue value. Once a standard billboard goes electronic, the compensation required to remove it will be prohibitive. Do we really want to make taxpayers liable for huge bailouts to the billboard industry? Do we in Durham really want to expose ourselves to millions of dollars of risk so a company in Georgia can make more money?

Why go there? Existing billboards are currently “grandfathered” into new zoning standards as nonconforming uses. Building new billboards or upgrading existing ones is prohibited in Durham.

Several years ago, the Durham InterNeighborhood Council was instrumental in working with Durham officials and communities across the state to end billboard blight in the Bull City.

It was therefore surprising to learn that the sitting INC leadership placed a presentation by the billboard industry on its Agenda — without including a speaker who represents an opposing perspective or who could provide historical background on current zoning restrictions on billboards. As a result, this newspaper wrote an article that basically reported what the billboard industry said. After wading through the first ten paragraphs telling us what billboard companies want, we FINALLY get to hear from a Durham resident who calls the idea “awful for our community.”

Constructing more billboards in Durham, electronic or otherwise, is not a citizen or neighborhood initiated issue. It was placed on the agenda because it serves the interests of the billboard industry and advertisers. Cluttering our roads and neighborhoods with brightly lit, attention-grabbing billboards is a terrible idea. We shouldn’t let the industry try to change our ordinances to line the pockets of out-of-state businesses with no interest in Durham and in the quality of life of its citizens.

Durham has been receiving lots of national recognition in national publications for the things that make it such a vibrant and engaged community — our restaurants and “foodie” culture, our revitalized in-town neighborhoods, the arts, and our local shops. The diversity of our economy and community is what makes Durham a desirable place to live.

The national ratings Durham got as one of the best places to live did not include brightly lit billboards flashing ads 24/7 along heavily traveled stretches of the Durham Freeway, 15-501, I-85, and U.S. 70 to the Wake County line.

There’s not enough lipstick in the Carolinas to fix these flashy pigs on a stick. We all should strongly oppose this self-serving move by the billboard industry.

John Schelp and Larry Holt are Durham residents. See pro and con columns at

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