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Policy Issue Briefs

Staff Contacts:

Myron Laible or Kerry Yoakum

This page features an alphabetical list of topics that are common in discussions about regulating billboards. What does the public think about billboards? How are billboards taxed? Does the First Amendment apply to advertising? The documents linked below define terms, provide background, and include research. Most of these documents are issue briefs that include industry talking points. These documents are intended as educational primers for OAAA members, and are suitable as hand-out materials. 


Aesthetics
Billboards are part of America’s culture and visual fabric. Federal, state and local laws regulate the size, lighting and spacing of billboards. American public opinion supports the idea that billboards should be regulated fairly, not banned. 

Debates about visual appeal are as old as art itself. But concerns about aesthetics should not be used as a ruse to block the promotion of legal products or stifle free expression that is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Issue Brief


An Assessment of the Highway Beautification Act’s Consistency with American Public Opinion


Amortization
Amortization for removal of legal outdoor advertising structures is extreme and unfair. 
Generally, the issue of amortization is passe because the federal government and most states protect billboard property owners from this scheme (government sets an arbitrary deadline for the end of a permitted use, in lieu of compensation). 

The definition of amortization is derived from the Latin word "mort," which refers to death and is the root word for mortality and mortuary. A common use of the word -- in financial transactions -- is to amortize or liquidate debt. Regarding billboards, amortization is the forced government removal of private property over time without payment of just compensation to the owner. Therefore, amortization is slow-motion taking. 

Protection against government confiscation of property is a founding principle of our republic. The Founding Fathers, concerned about the King's ability to seize property in colonial America, included protection of private property rights in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution ("... nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.").

Issue Brief


Compendium of State Just Compensation Laws
Bans and Moratoria

Bans and moratoria are generally regarded as extreme measures.

Billboard bans hurt advertisers and commerce; most billboard ads promote small, local businesses. Billboard advertisers say their sales losses would be significant without billboards.

Billboards are heavily regulated, by multiple layers of government. Federal law establishes a national regulatory framework for billboards (size, lighting, and spacing); state and local laws also regulate outdoor advertising. This regulatory system has consistently matched public opinion. Americans say billboards should be regulated, not eliminated.

Issue Brief

A Study of Local Regulation of Outdoor Advertising in 271 US Jurisdictions

A Study of Local Regulation of Outdoor Advertising in 215 US Jurisdictions

An Assessment of the Highway Beautification Act’s Consistency with American Public Opinion

The Role of Billboards in the US Economy



Do States that Ban Billboards Have Increased Tourism and Improved Economies?


Bonus Law Program
In 1958, Congress passed outdoor advertising control legislation commonly known as the Bonus Act, P.L. 85-381, as part of the Federal-Aid Highway Act. 

The Bonus Act provided an incentive to states to control outdoor advertising within 660 feet of the interstate highway system. States volunteering for the program would receive a bonus of one-half of one percent of the federal-aid highway construction costs on segments of Interstate highways controlling outdoor advertising. 

In 1965, this statute was replaced by the Highway Beautification Act. Reference to the Bonus Program is found in the United States Code [23 U.S.C. 131 (j)]. Bonus Program regulations promulgated by the Federal Highway Administration are found at 23 C.F.R. 750, Subpart A. Its provisions still exist via agreements with the states.

Issue Brief


Condemnation/Valuation
When government causes removal of a sign, the owner of the billboard and the landowner are required to receive just compensation. The fundamental law pertaining to billboard valuation is the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, with just compensation.” Just compensation is measured by determining the market value based on a bona fide appraisal of the economic value of the lost property interest.

Issue Brief


Condemnation of Billboard Interests


OAAA Taxes versus Taking Webinar
Content Control
The courts have affirmed constitutional protection of commercial speech, upholding the right to promote legal products (Lorillard Tobacco Co. v Reilly, United States Supreme Court, 2001). Outdoor advertising is a recognized medium of communication. 

Since 1999, outdoor advertising formats have not been used to promote cigarette brands, as part of a master settlement between tobacco manufacturers and state attorney generals. 

The outdoor industry practices self-regulation. The industry's code includes a buffer zone around schools, places of worship, and other areas where children gather (a voluntary restraint on promoting products illegal for sale to minors). Further, the industry's code features an anti-obscenity clause, and respects the right to refuse advertising.

Issue Brief

Cigar Advertising



Vice Advertising 1
 


Vice Advertising 2 


Creativity: Regulations-Part 1 Webinar


Creativity: Regulations-Part 2 Webinar


Digital Billboards
Hand painting on a sign became printed paper pasted on the board. Paper and paste is giving way to computer-generated images on plastic substrates. Today, the next generation of billboards is digital. These dynamic tools for advertisers and communities represent a small fraction of the total number of billboards in the United States. Read more…


Economic Impact/Jobs
Outdoor advertising drives sales, helps guide mobile consumers to goods and services, and supports jobs. Most outdoor ads promote small, local businesses. Small business is the jobs engine of the economy. Over 6.5 million workers are employed by local advertisers who chose to place their messages on billboards. 

The adverse impact of losing billboards is immediate and significant. Billboard advertisers say they would lose 18 percent of sales without billboards. For some advertisers, outdoor advertising is the only affordable, available means of mass communication with consumers. 

One of three outdoor ads promote travel and tourism, a top employer in most states. 

Issue Brief


Do States that Ban Billboards Have Increased Tourism and Improved Economies?


The Local Economic Impact of the Outdoor Advertising Industry


The Role of Billboards in the US Economy


Business Perceptions of the Role of Billboards in the US Economy


Exactions
Exaction occurs when local government conditions its approval of land use on removal of billboards. This practice is fundamentally unfair, and denies the billboard owner just compensation in the event of billboard removal. In response, a growing number of states have adopted laws designed to protect property rights from exaction.

Issue Brief
Lighting
Illumination is fundamental to effective outdoor advertising, a round-the-clock means of mass communication. Unreasonable limits on lighting hurt the traveling public, advertisers, and public safety.

Overall, most night lighting is produced by sources other than billboards; research shows that billboard lights account for approximately 4 percent. Meanwhile, technology is enhancing lighting efficiency. Thousands of billboards once lit by four fixtures are switching to two lamps, reducing energy consumption and light spillage.

Issue Brief


Comparison of DOT LED Traffic Signs and Digital Billboard Lighting
Logo Signs and Tourist-oriented Directional Signs
Generally, federal policy prohibits advertising in the right-of-way. Exceptions are made for blue-backed signs near interchanges that provide information about services available near highways. These blue signs on the right-of-way are known as logo signs, because they feature brand logos. Federal policy allows logo signs to advertise gas, food, lodging, camping, attractions, and pharmacies. 

Meanwhile, brown tourist-oriented directional signs (TODS) are located along rural, non-freeway routes. They provide business identification and directional information for cultural, historical, and recreational activities as well as commercial establishments. 

Logo signs and TODS supplement outdoor advertising in providing information to the traveling public. 

Issue Brief
Noise Barriers
Noise barriers are a common feature of roadway design. If a noise barrier is erected to obscure billboard visibility, then billboards should be raised to preserve line of sight. There are no federal criteria or restrictions concerning billboard height. This is a state or local matter and several states have specific authority to increase billboard height (CA, LA, NV, UT). 

Issue Brief


FHWA Guidance on the Adjusting the Height of Nonconforming Signs
Nonconforming Signs
In the broader context of real estate and zoning regulations, nonconforming uses are common. Nonconforming billboards are legal, but do not conform to land-use rules that have changed.

The federal Highway Beautification Act (HBA) delegates to states to establish standards for maintenance, repair, and relocation. Therefore, state standards vary. In 1992, Congress clarified that states may use federal highway funds to remove nonconforming billboards, but are under no federal obligation to do so. As a practical matter, states choose not to spend their resources for this purpose. 


Relocation


Reconstruction


FHWA Guidance on the Adjusting the Height of Nonconforming Signs


FHWA Guidance on Destroyed Sign Criteria
Permits and Fees
Typically, billboard operators pay fees for permits and additional fees to renew permits. The public policy rationale for setting the level of fees is for the regulated class to pay for the costs of government regulation. Toward that end, the outdoor advertising industry supports reasonable fees. However, excessive fees that generate more than the cost to administer regulations are taxes disguised as fees.

Issue Brief


State Permit Fees
Political Advertising
Outdoor advertising is an increasingly relevant communications medium, including delivering political messages. State regulations typically require political ads to include legible disclosure of who is paying for the message. Buyers of political advertising are attracted to outdoor advertising for its ability to create buzz, to brand candidates and slogans, and to target audiences.

Issue Brief


State Contribution and Disclosure Information
Prescription Drug Advertising
To protect consumers, federal law regulates advertising of prescription drugs. The Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act prohibits false claims and calls for a fair balance between information about effectiveness of drugs and risks. The federal enforcement agency is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The outdoor medium is used to advertise prescription drugs, in compliance with federal regulations.

Issue Brief
Property Values
A comprehensive study of thousands of parcels in the county surrounding Tampa, FL, showed that parcels with billboards are more valuable that neighboring parcels. Billboard leases provide additional income for landowners, enhancing property values.

Outdoor Advertising Local Economic Impact Tampa Study



Economic Impact of Billboard Locations on Property Values in Philadelphia (April, 2012)

Public Opinion
The outdoor advertising industry has monitored public opinion toward billboards for over 25 years. The following polls, taken by various independent research groups show that Americans like billboards, believe they promote business, and are useful to drivers. Read more…

An Assessment of the Highway Beautification Act’s Consistency with American Public Opinion

Arbitron LA Billboard Study

Arbitron Cleveland Digital Billboard Study

Mediagenic Digital Billboard Survey 2011

Mediagenic Digital Billboard Survey 2012


Scenic Byways
The goal of Scenic Byway designations is to protect scenic areas and to promote travel and tourism by attracting visitors to these areas. The goal is not an absolute ban on billboards, because federal policy allows billboards in certain segments of Scenic Byways that are commercial-industrial. Billboards in these business areas along Scenic Byways complement the goal of attracting travelers to scenic locations. 

Issue Brief
Spacing
Outdoor advertising signs are governed by restrictions set forth in federal/state agreements and/or codified in state statutes or administrative regulations adopted by each state. The spacing requirements included in federal/state agreements vary between the states. A majority of the agreements require at least 500 foot spacing on the interstate, 300 feet outside cities, and 100 feet inside cities. Furthermore, spacing requirements can vary according to road classification. Accordingly, it is important to review each state’s statutes and regulations to determine the applicable sign spacing requirements.

Issue Brief

State Spacing Matrix

FHWA letter to Sen. David Vitter
Taxation
The public-funding crisis has led many state and local legislators across the country to search for new revenue streams as traditional tax collections have declined. When faced with the alternatives of angering voters by raising taxes, angering voters by cutting services, or the risks associated with taxing billboards, many taxing authorities see billboards as an easy target.  The information contained on the page below outlines industry message points, provides supporting materials, and includes leave behinds designed to drive home the most important messages points associated with taxing billboards. Read more…
Tourism
The travel-tourism industry is a cornerstone of the U.S. economy. One out of 18 Americans in the civilian work force is employed due to travel spending. In most states, travel-tourism ranks first, second or third as the top employer. Among the diverse spectrum of businesses that use outdoor advertising, the hospitality sector buys the most outdoor ads (one third of the total).

In a highly mobile society, outdoor advertising provides useful information to motorists and helps travelers reach their destinations. Most billboard ads promote local business, and most of those businesses are considered "small business." Billboard advertisers say the loss of billboards causes an immediate, significant loss of sales.

Issue Brief
Traffic Safety
Research shows that billboards -- even the most attention-getting billboards -- are not related to accidents. The presence of billboards does not affect motorists' behavior, such as changing lanes or change speed.

New technology enables billboard copy to change via computer. Known as digital billboards, these signs display static messages, typically for six or eight seconds. State and local governments have reviewed accident records for roadways near digital billboards; they do not cite traffic safety problems associated with digital billboards. Likewise, an engineering analysis of three years of accident data in the Cleveland, OH, area showed no statistical relationship between digital billboards and accidents. A separate study of drivers in the same area said digital billboards are safety neutral.

Issue Brief

Driving Performance in the Presence and Absence of Billboards

Digital Traffic Safety Research


Vegetation Control
The outdoor advertising industry supports responsible state regulations in order to conduct selective pruning and trimming as part of state highway landscaping and maintenance programs. 

Vegetation control is a common, longstanding practice along roadways, for the sake of safety and visibility. Using widely accepted practices, utilities routinely trim vegetation so power lines can be maintained.

Issue Brief


Vegetation Video

State Vegetation Control Program Fees & Clear Zone Chart


Zoning
The Highway Beautification Act (HBA) of 1965 was designed to regulate billboards, not eliminate them. The act said billboards belong in commercial and industrial (C & I) areas (where business activity occurs). Some C&I areas are zoned and others are unzoned. The HBA allows billboards in both zoned and in unzoned areas. 

Issue Brief

FHWA Zoning Guidance Memorandum

If you need more information, contact Myron Laible or Kerry Yoakum at OAAA (202-833-5566).