Could a loophole allow billboards to grow twice as tall across Texas?

Billboard heights could be soaring across Texas highways if new rules proposed by the Texas Department of Transportation go into effect. A billboard on US Highway 290 points the way to the Blue Bell Creameries on Thursday, April 23.
Billboard heights could be soaring across Texas highways if new rules proposed by the Texas Department of Transportation go into effect. A billboard on US Highway 290 points the way to the Blue Bell Creameries on Thursday, April 23. AP

Imagine driving across Texas and seeing billboards suddenly stretching twice as high, marring your view of the landscape.

A scenic advocacy group fears this could be the result of proposed new rules from the Texas Department of Transportation.

For decades, the maximum height for billboards has stood at 42 1/2 feet. But the proposed rules state that “a sign existing on March 1, 2017 may not be higher than 85 feet.” That’s taller than an 8-story building.

While the agency contends its new rule is only intended to bring some taller billboards into compliance with state law, the group Scenic Texas believes it could open the door for billboard companies to raise existing signs.

“The way we interpret it is that any billboard that existed on March 1 may go up to 85 feet,” said Margaret Lloyd, vice president of Scenic Texas, who lives in Galveston.

TxDOT will be accepting comments on the proposed rule change through 5 p.m. on Oct. 16.

In this year’s legislative session, Senate Bill 312 added a new portion of the state’s transportation code declaring that signs existing on March 1, 2017 “may not be higher than 85 feet.” It also stated that signs could be rebuilt without obtaining a new permit as long as they remain at their existing height. TxDOT has now written rules to implement the change.

David Glessner, the transportation’s agency spokesman, said the agency’s proposed rules will allow existing billboards to receive an exemption to stay at their current height as long as it is below 85 feet, but wouldn’t allow for any to be rebuilt that high. New billboards would still have to comply with the 42 1/2 feet height standard.

However, Glessner said “nothing is set in stone” and final rules won’t be presented to the Texas Transportation Commission until November or December.

‘Language could be tighter’

Jason King, a spokesman for Clear Channel Outdoor, also contends that Texans won’t see a rash of signs going higher.

“The amendment offered on SB 312 does not raise the height of structures, but rather it grandfathers the signs at their current height and any claims contrary to that are simply untrue and unfortunate,” King said.

But the bill’s author, State. Sen Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, isn’t so sure. In a guest column sent to newspapers co-authored by Nichols and State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, the senators accuse the billboard industry of trying to circumvent the Legislature.

“Rather than committing to following the rules going forward, billboard owners are trying to repeal the height limit altogether through TxDOT’s rule-making process,” the senators wrote.

Sen. Nichols chief of staff, Angus Lupton, said the senator has concerns that the language of the proposed rules is too vague.

“We believe the language could be tighter,” Lupton said.

Lloyd also said the wording is far too broad.

“The way we read it, the rule applies to all signs before March 1,” Lloyd said. “Certainly if I can read it to mean everybody, the billboard industry can interpret it to mean everybody.”

The rules wouldn’t apply to cities such as Fort Worth that have their own sign ordinances but would impact unincorporated areas since counties don’t have the authority to regulate billboards. Fort Worth generally does not allow any new billboards and also has a 42 1/2 foot restriction. Some billboards as high as 60 feet have been grandfathered, said spokeswoman Cindy Vasquez.

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‘Absolutely shellshocked’

The bill’s authors said the original intent of the height rule contained in Senate Bill 312, which was the sunset legislation for the Texas Department of Transportation, was to address roughly 160 signs that were deemed out of compliance. The height disputes had led to lawsuits between the state transportation agency and the billboard owners.

During an Aug. 31 Texas Transportation Commission meeting, TxDOT officials said they have difficulty verifying the height of signs even with the latest technology.

In a letter to Texas Transportation Commission Chair Tryon Lewis, both Nichols and State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, made that explicitly clear.

“In no way did we intend to permit TxDOT to authorize thousands of signs to be built or rebuilt up to 85 feet in height or more,” the senators wrote. “In fact, we discussed this issue specifically on the Senate floor and had our exchange reduced to writing and placed in the Senate Journal to make our intent clear.”

This isn’t the first time, the state has tried to allow for taller billboards. In 2014, the Texas Department of Transportation shelved a proposal to raise billboard heights after the agency received about 900 comments against the proposal, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Many smaller cities have no sign ordinances and rely on state rules for billboard regulations, Lloyd said.

“It could go up to 85 feet overnight and they would be absolutely shellshocked,” Lloyd said.

Anyone wishing to comment on the proposed TxDOT rules should email RuleComments@txdot.gov with the subject line “Commercial sign rules.” Comments can also be mailed to Rule Comments, General Counsel Division, Texas Department of Transportation, 125 East 11th St., Austin, Texas 78701-2483.

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna

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