Included in the four-bill package is a measure that would cap the number of billboards in the state by prohibiting the issuance of new permits to erect a new billboard or renew permits for signs existing prior to March 31, 1972.
A coalition of industry and business interests is mounting opposition against the bills, now pending in the Senate Transportation Committee. The group — Business and Charities for Billboards — contends that billboards are already heavily regulated on both the federal and local levels that dictate their placement, size and spacing, and that additional measures are unneeded.
Any additional state regulation, they contend, would merely drive up the cost of advertising for businesses and nonprofit organizations that use billboards to generate awareness.
Outdoor advertising “is not an industry that suffers from a lack of regulation,” said Rich Studley, senior vice president for government affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
“Employees and employers across the state depend on billboards to sell their products,” Studley said. “It’s a necessary and important part of doing business for a lot of companies.”
Proponents of the bills base the need for more regulation of billboards as a land-use issue —preserving the state’s natural beauty — and depict billboards as an eyesore on the landscape surrounding roadways and highways.
The bills, introduced in December, would create a 12-member state advisory panel to consider best practices for billboards, raise permit fees to support a fund to pay for removing “abandoned signs,” alter an existing law to allow logos for tourism attractions and related businesses to appear on state signs posted near freeway interchanges, and place a moratorium on issuing permits.
There are presently 14,000 billboard faces, two per pole, in Michigan. Backers of the legislation say another 2,200 have been issued across the state, although signs have not yet been erected.
“Part of the charm and attraction of Michigan is its scenic beauty,” said Sen. Tom George, R-Texas Township, the chief sponsor of the legislation.
“We recognize that billboards provide important information to Michigan motorists and we do not wish to eliminate them. However, we have reached the saturation point.”
Among the backers of the package are two West Michigan legislators, Sen. Gerald Van Woerkom, R-Muskegon, and Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, who are co-sponsors to one of the bills.
Former Attorney General Frank Kelley and former Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus also support the legislation.
“Few measures would have more impact on improving the aesthetic beauty on Michigan’s out-of-doors than reducing the clutter of billboards in our open spaces,” Posthumus said.
And Kelley contends that billboards “do more damage to our landscape and vistas than any commercial or informational value they claim.”
“At the very least, Michigan should limit and control the proliferation of billboards,” Kelley said.
But opponents to the bills say claims of billboard proliferation are exaggerated and that the number of sign permits in effect today is about the same as 20 years ago.
Roger Martin, a spokesman for the coalition Business and Charities for Billboards, contends that existing regulations are plenty and that private-sector forces, not additional government regulations, should determine the number of billboards around the state.
“We’ve already got enough regulations on the books and they’re working,” Martin said. “We believe the market should determine what is enough and what is not enough.”
As with many other previous legislative sessions where new billboard regulations were introduced, both Martin and Studley doubt the bills will receive much support in the Legislature.
“They’re really a solution looking for a problem,” Studley said.