NO to electronic billboards in Durham

At its meeting tonight (7 pm, March 24, in the Herald Sun Community room), the InterNeighborhood Council (INC) will debate and vote on two resolutions concerning the billboard industry’s request to be able to upgrade billboards, to move them to new locations along I-85, 15-501, 501, 147, and Hwy 70, and to turn as many as 25 into the digital display variety that can show a different ad every eight seconds.

One resolution, put forward by the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood, asks INC to support Durham’s current billboard policy, which has served the City well since the 1980s.

The other resolution, ostensibly put forward by the Rockwood Falconbridge neighborhood, supports an effort led by Fairway Outdoor Advertising to overturn Durham’s current policy and open the door for electronic billboards in Durham. Of note is the fact that Rockwood’s resolution is being put forward by a resident who is also an attorney with K&L Gates — a firm representing, you guessed it, Fairway Outdoor Advertising.

UPDATE: According to an email from Tom Miller and Josh Allen of Watts-Hillandale, the second resolution “was put forward by the delegate from the Falconbridge neighborhood and was supported by Patrick Byker, the delegate from the Rockwood neighborhood.”

So, is that what INC is for? Is the InterNeighborhood Council of Durham just a shill for corporate entities who find local stand-ins to help manipulate community politics? Does the Rockwood neighborhood really support overturning Durham’s ban on new billboards?

Below is an opinion column from today’s Herald Sun. Penned by Durham residents John Schelp and Larry Holt, the column introduces a new website, which I am happy to host, and explains why new billboards in Durham is a bad idea.

Visit this site to learn more about why Durham has as few billboards as it does, and how you can help keep it that way.

The billboard industry is campaigning hard to overturn Durham’s existing ban on billboards. To counter the misinformation coming from industry, folks in the community are launching a new website today at

On this site, you can see photos of billboards over homes in East Durham, video clips of blinking electronic billboards in action, and a thoughtful presentation supporting Durham’s current ban on billboards.

Overturning Durham’s ban on electronic billboards would open the door to big, bright, blinking billboards on I-85, 147, 15-501 and 70. Do we want large billboards at the top of tall metal poles — flashing ads every eight seconds — near homes, schools, parks and places of worship?

The site outlines many reasons to oppose the billboard industry’s attempt to overturn our ordinance.

Billboard taxes and the local economy: Billboards are not taxed on the amount of revenue they generate. So, billboards contribute an extremely small amount to Durham’s tax revenues.

Fairway Advertising paid just $2,605.60 in taxes last year. Just $2600 for the 46 billboards Fairway owns in Durham. Many single family residences in Durham pay a lot more than that.

Replacing standard billboards with electronic ones would generate 10 times more revenues for billboard owners — from $2,000 to $14,000/month (Inc. magazine). And yet, tax revenues would remain tiny.

Adding insult to injury, if local officials wanted to remove an electronic billboard for any reason in the future, Durham taxpayers would have to compensate the owners for lost revenues.

Jobs: Durham would see few economic benefits from new jobs, since billboard companies employ very few people (mostly managers and sales personnel), and Fairway’s offices are in Georgia and Raleigh. Fairway’s impact on Durham’s economy is negligible.

Public Service Ads: A common industry tactic for undermining public opposition to electronic billboards is to offer free billboard space to non-profit organizations. The industry has employed this tactic in Durham, asking City Council members to name their favorite local non-profits then approaching the groups and offering them free billboard space. This explains why you’re suddenly seeing non-profit billboards around town.

The often unnoticed irony in this tactic is that the ads on electronic billboards change about 10,800 times/day. So, we can see PSAs for anti-drinking programs followed by ads for Bud Lite and Seagram’s Vodka.

Billboards and the environment: Electronic billboards have a big carbon footprint — equivalent to that of about 13 houses. At the same time citizens are being urged to use florescent light bulbs to reduce our individual carbon footprints, we’re being urged to embrace billboards and their energy consumption?

Public safety: Anything that distracts a driver’s eyes from the road for more than two seconds significantly increases the chances of a wreck. Electronic billboards are designed to attract drivers’ attention and are an intrinsic safety hazard. Do we really want drivers on our increasingly congested thoroughfares intentionally distracted by attention-grabbing electronic billboards?

Aesthetics: Durham citizens, neighborhood groups, and local officials worked hard to reduce billboard blight along our highways and in our city. There have been a many, many letters to the editor from Durham citizens who oppose electronic billboards and a only a few supporting the billboard industry, with most of those coming from the Friends of Durham/Chamber of Commerce camp. Some of these letter writers have blamed local government for the deterioration of billboards in Durham. The fact is that current ordinances allow billboard companies to make annual improvements in order to maintain their billboards, but the industry has allowed its billboards to deteriorate anyway. These billboards may be ugly, but don’t blame current ordinances or local government.

The Chamber’s efforts on behalf of the billboard industry to overturn the current ban on electronic billboards, despite citizen outcry, begs the question: Why are the City and County giving the Chamber $128,000 in taxpayer subsidies/year so the Chamber can turn around and lobby local officials on behalf of outside interests that contribute little to our local economy or quality of life?

And it’s inexcusable that billboard industry lawyers target a Planning staffer because the facts she presents don’t support their client’s attempt to overturn Durham’s ban on electronic billboards (Officials’ objectivity questioned, Herald-Sun, 3/08/09). Surely, the billboard industry isn’t suggesting that relevant facts should be kept from the public?

As a recent article points out, there are plenty of compelling reasons not to overturn Durham’s ordinance (Planner: Proceed with caution on billboard issue, Durham News, 2/07/09)…

  • Fairway’s billboards now produce about $2,600 in county tax revenue; switching some to digital “would still not generate significant revenue”
  • Local government cannot require the signs to carry public-service messages
  • Digital billboards could be found to violate the federal Highway Beautification Act
  • Allowing digital billboards while safety studies are pending could expose Durham to liability for accidents
  • Full sunlight reaches about 6,500 “nits;” a digital billboard can reach 10,000 nits.

Please visit our new website. Electronic billboards are a bad idea for Durham. Together, we can stop the billboard industry.


NO to electronic billboards in Durham — 7 Comments

  1. “Put forward by the Rockwood neighborhood”? Who put it forward? I live in Rockwood and I definitely don’t support it. From the action on the Rockwood mailing list, I am guessing that a large majority of Rockwood residents oppose billboards, especially electronic ones. No one has been authorized to speak on our behalf, as far as I’m aware.

  2. In that case, someone (or as many people as you want) should probably come to the INC meeting tonight and voice that opinion.

  3. I too am part of the Rockwood Neighborhood Association and try to read everything I can that comes across our listserve. I do not support overturning the billboard ban, and was not aware that our neighborhood was polled for input. If anyone is monitoring this site for discussion at tonight’s meeting, please feel free to use my name if I cannot be there in person. I will try though. I oppose billboards of any kind in Rockwood!

  4. I am also a Rockwood resident, and I don’t recall Patrick Byker being elected or authorized as a delegate. No one else in Rockwood seems to remember such. Thanks for blogging about this. Time to rev up the self righteous indignation.

  5. Fine for Patrick to attend these meetings as a resident of the Rockwood community and to speak his mind as a resident, he mentioned on the listserve that he was attending and asked for alternates. But it is not fine to speak for the community at large on such an important issue. I wonder if this is being reported accurately, and would like to hear Patrick’s side.

  6. Say no to billboards on the whole!!!

    My lovely state of VT chose to protect the scenic beauty of our hills and mountains and fields by making all of them illegal. Folks still seem to find the gas stations and supermarkets just fine…

    And whenever I make it home from a road trip I grin when I think of how nice it is to have an environment free of ‘clutter’.

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