Originally created 12/16/04

Billboard rule could cost state millions



ATLANTA - The state Department of Transportation Board on Wednesday continued struggling with the issue of billboard rules and how to avoid losing as much as $66 million in federal transportation funds if the rules aren't changed.

Current federal law prohibits billboards from being erected on the side of interstates and select state routes unless the roadways are zoned for commercial or industrial use.

However, some rural counties in Georgia have taken to rezoning strips of property in mainly agricultural areas so that tracts of land along the roadside meet the zoning rules.

Federal officials say such actions are inconsistent with the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 - the law in question - and mean Georgia is now in noncompliance with the federal measure.

Robert Callan, the head of the Federal Highway Administration's Georgia Division, sent a letter to state Transportation Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl in November saying the federal government would be forced to withhold 10 percent of Georgia's federal transportation funds - roughly $66 million - unless the state Transportation Board approves new outdoor advertising rules by Jan. 31.

A revised set of rules that meets the federal government's requirements has languished in a Transportation Board committee for months as board members debated the situation.

Charles Law, the director of operations for the Georgia Department of Transportation, told members of the DOT Overview Committee on Wednesday the federal law's purpose is to preserve natural beauty in rural areas.

"The intent was not to allow outdoor advertising signs in those areas," Mr. Law told the board, while showing slidesof multiple billboards along a rural stretch of Interstate 75 in Monroe County, north of Macon. "It's still timber land."

However, board Chairman David Doss expressed concern that the department doesn't have the right to deny billboard requests from counties that have been using strip zoning.

"Even though it's a stand of pines, that governing authority allowed it," Mr. Doss said of the various county commissions that could be affected.

"I'm having a hard time finding out how we have a dog in this fight," Mr. Doss said.

The board scheduled a vote for today on whether to ask the state attorney general for legal advice on the issue.

"I certainly don't want to change things if we don't know they're right or wrong," said Mike Evans, who represents the 10th Congressional District on the Transportation Board.

If the attorney general's office is asked to look into the matter, the board would receive a report at its next scheduled meeting Jan. 5 - less than four weeks before the deadline to change the billboard rules and avoid losing the $66 million.

Board member Brad Hubbert, who represents the 4th Congressional District, didn't share the hesitancy of other board members in revamping the billboard rules.

"We need to go on and do what we need to do to satisfy the federal regulations," he said.

Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 681-1701 or brian.basinger@morris.com.

The Impact:

The federal government would be forced to withhold 10 percent of Georgia's transportation funds - nearly $66 million - unless the state Transportation Board approves new outdoor advertising rules by Jan. 31.