Michigan law could slow growth of digital billboards - KMSP-TV

Michigan law could slow growth of digital billboards

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) -

A newly minted Michigan law seeks to somewhat limit the growth of digital billboards across the state, in some cases requiring companies to trade in three unused permits to put up one electronic outdoor sign along a highway.

The measure signed Thursday by Gov. Rick Snyder also may reduce the number of existing billboards by making sure new digital incarnations are farther apart than regular billboards now have to be.

The governor's signature -- which came a day after the bill cleared the Senate 21-14 and the House 104-6 -- capped a two-year process to bring Michigan into compliance with federal rules, but one that got tied up amid wrangling over other issues.

"I don't think many of us think we have a lack of advertising outside," Rep. Bradford Jacobsen, an Oxford Republican and sponsor of the legislation, said after it won final approval.

Michigan has around 14,500 billboards and, under a 2007 moratorium, is capped at issuing more permits overall. Fewer than 200 of the billboards are digital and mostly are in larger metropolitan areas.

Electronic billboards can be attractive to their owners because of the ability to cycle in multiple messages a day instead of one static advertisement. But the downside is cost, with Jacobsen estimating it is not unusual to spend $500,000 to $750,000 to erect a digital billboard and power it with electricity.

Some people believe digital billboards are more distracting and too bright, making roads less safe. A recently released federal study, however, found that electronic signs do not cause drivers to glance at them much longer than regular billboards to the point of posing a safety risk.

"The problem we ran into this time around was with that limit, that cap, on the actual billboards and this whole digital movement ... within that framework how do they get to play?" said Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican. "What do you get rid of to be able to get the digital billboards?"

The law includes a provision designed to help smaller operators by letting billboard companies trade in up to eight "nonstandard" signs -- generally those erected more than 15 years ago but which are too close to other billboards -- for a digital billboard permit without the three-to-one trade-in requirement. Owners of standard signs can instead put up a digital sign as long as they pay $200 a year, at least double what is charged for non-digital billboards.

The trade-in exception applies for just one year and will not apply in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties in the Detroit area.

"That was designed to help the little guy get off the ground with this," said Casperson, who noted that some large companies have thousands of billboards and permits to trade in while smaller ones could have a few dozen. "We will accept digital billboards but there has to be parameters around them."

The law regulates how bright the signs can be, how they are lit and how often ads can be rotated. Digital billboards also cannot be closer than 1,750 feet to each other, unless they were already up before Snyder signed the law.

The governor said Michigan risked losing up to $100 million, or 10 percent, of its federal highway funding without acting. He said the update brings more "common sense" to the state's billboard regulations.

Under one change, sign owners now only have to get a permit every five years to trim trees and shrubs around their billboards instead of every year. The law also clarifies the definition of digital billboards and aims to better define the permitting process and what to do with "nonstandard" signs.

Though the law won overwhelming approval in the House, it had opposition in the Senate.

Republican Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Wayne County's Canton Township complained that instead of just making changes to avoid a possible federal road funding penalty, lawmakers went too far and discouraged small businesses from getting into the market. He and other senators wanted to allow operators to upgrade up to 50 signs to digital signs before reaching the three-to-one trade-in requirement.

"I'm a big believer in, `Let's keep it simple,"' Colbeck said. "I'm just sensitive to fear-driven legislation."

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