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Watauga County drivers may see additional billboards and advertising signs in the future, as the planning board plans to review the sign ordinance. Photo by Kellen Moore

Originally published: 2013-04-11 18:43:02
Last modified: 2013-04-12 09:23:27

County to review billboard regulation

Watauga County's ban on new billboards and other sign regulations may undergo changes as the planning board begins to re-examine the county's ordinance next week.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Miller proposed the review at a board meeting last week, when the commissioners were slated to review minor, technical corrections to the ordinance.

Commissioners voted unanimously to allow the planning board to re-evaluate the matter.

"It's worth a discussion as to whether that's something we want," Miller said. " ... An outright ban to me seems capricious."

Miller said he thought permitting new advertising signs would allow businesses to promote themselves and local landowners to make money by leasing or selling their roadside properties.
"The electronic billboards, I know, are a different breed of animal, but on just the stagnant signs that you see, I'd like to see a process where new ones could be erected," he said.

The county originally adopted an ordinance regulating signs in April 1985, developing a policy that closely resembled the N.C. Department of Transportation's regulations, said Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman.

"Even under the former rules, it was pretty limited in where billboards could go," he said.

The DOT regulations apply only to U.S. 421, U.S. 321, U.S. 221 and N.C. 105. The county regulations apply all county roads outside of town limits, Furman said.

New, off-premises signs cannot be installed on certain sections designated by the state or county as scenic highways. That includes U.S. 421, parts of N.C. 194 and a section of Broadstone Road, Furman said.

In 2009, the ordinance underwent changes as electronic billboards -- those with illuminated displays that can change at regular intervals -- began popping up.

The Watauga County Planning Board proposed regulations to limit the placement and characteristics of electronic signs, but the Board of Commissioners went a step further, prohibiting the installation of new advertising signs. They also prevented companies from upgrading existing advertising signs to electronic.

Four years later, all but one of the planning board members has changed.

Chairman Ric Matter is the only current board member who was involved in the 2009 changes.

He said he couldn't predict how the new planning board members will feel about the matter. The board now includes Neil Hartley, Todd Castle, Dennis Scanlin, Jim West, Patrick Morgan and Jamie Hodges.

"I see the upcoming restudy of this as being two-fold: one is whether to allow some (advertising) signs, and two is, what do we do about digital signs?" Mattar said.

Mattar said he was open to listening to businesses about their interest in the matter but said he personally believed that billboards were becoming less relevant in an age of smart phones and other technology.

The planning board may be less rushed this time than it was in 2009, he noted. At that time, the county had enacted a moratorium on the signs while the board studied the issue, and the moratorium had to be extended at least once, he said.

The board meets at 6 p.m. Monday at the Watauga County Commissioners' Board Room at 814 W. King St. in Boone.