New Billboards in Knox County Should Be Banned

As I turn south onto Alcoa Highway from my Lakemoor Hills residence on Maloney Road, there's a small green sign proclaiming its designation as a Tennessee Scenic Parkway. The sign would be most welcome except for one not-so-little thing. Looming up immediately behind it in my sight line is a big billboard advertising the Hartsoe Law Firm for accident injuries. Presumably, the billboard's location predated the 1971 enactment of the state's Scenic Parkway Act banning them and was thus entitled to a "grandfathered" lease on life. And a cynic might say that if billboards are indeed to be permitted, what better than one for help with accident injuries resulting from the driving distractions they can cause.

Turning east on the more recently built John Sevier Highway, which is also a scenic parkway, I'm finally treated to six miles of viewing billboard-free scenic vistas until I reach its interchange with Chapman Highway.

Heading northward on Chapman Highway toward downtown, the landscape abruptly changes. Just past Gloria Dei Lutheran Church to the right is an electronic billboard so bright that County Commissioner Mike Brown recently observed "You need to be wearing sunglasses to look at it." Approaching what's being heralded as South Knoxville's Urban Wilderness, its attraction is besmirched by more than a dozen billboards in a one-mile stretch, including six on the otherwise lovely hillside leading up to Fort Dickerson Park.

Since 2001, the city of Knoxville has prohibited erection of any new billboards within its city limits. So the boards on Chapman are among some 700 in the city (most of which have two faces) that can be considered grandfathered relics of a bygone era. The city has also prevented conversion of any of these boards to the much more distracting digital variety (like the one near Gloria Dei outside the city) that can flash ever-changing messages like a television screen. However, the city's authority to deny these conversions has been contested in court by the baron of billboardom, Lamar Advertising, and that suit has dragged on for four years.

Meanwhile, since 2008, County Commission has imposed a moratorium on new billboards in Knox County—but not before 11 of the 188 boards outside the city had been converted to digital.

Now, Commissioner Richard Briggs is spearheading an effort to make the ban permanent and also prohibit any more conversions. After holding hearings and a workshop, Commission is due to act on Briggs' proposed amendments to the county's zoning ordinance in January, and there seems to be a consensus that the number of billboards should be capped.

However, a number of commissioners appear receptive to Lamar's call for a compromise that would permit new additions of the more profitable, multi-message, digital boards in exchange for the removal of a larger number of conventional ones. The executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, Mark Donaldson, has advised that such "cap and swap" agreements appear to have succeeded in reducing the number of the billboards in a number of localities. But for every one that Donaldson cites as working well, the president of Scenic Knoxville, Joyce Feld, cites one that hasn't.

In Tacoma, for example, its City Council in 2001 rescinded a 2010 cap and swap agreement and voted instead to ban digital billboards following a groundswell of protest. In Asheville earlier this year, its City Council voted "to remove standards that allow digital billboards in the city of Asheville" under a similar agreement.

Feld asserts that "I think we've already compromised. We've allowed over 400 billboard faces, and I think enough is enough. We definitely don't need digital. The public hates those things."

Briggs, for his part, says, "I'm not too interested in a compromise because it seems like somehow we always end up with the short end of the stick and I'm afraid that will happen here." He's also concerned that agreements on the part of billboard companies to take down signs won't be binding on subsequent property owners and lead to litigation. "The right to have a billboard belongs to the property owner and if the property is sold, then the new owner still has the right to put one up," Briggs asserts.

Commission Chairman Tony Norman characterizes opening the door to swaps as a "Pandora's Box issue" and fears they would be "too complicated to regulate." So with Commission's leading proponent of a Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan (Norman) and its most effective critic (Briggs) both supporting an outright ban on new billboards, it will hopefully be adopted.

A companion Briggs proposal that, in my opinion, goes too far would prohibit any new Electronic Message Centers (EMCs) in the county. While EMCs on the premises of a business, church, or other establishment can also be distracting to drivers and an eyesore, I believe they should be regulated, not prohibited. Restrictions already in effect in the city limit their size to 10 feet by 10 feet, the interval between message changes to at least 60 seconds, and also set illumination standards. While it's true that the city has come close to banning new ones, I believe these limitations should suffice because on-premise advertising deserves more tolerance than billboards that litter the countryside.