November 9, 2017
The state of Texas has drawn a line in the sky that limits the height of billboards along our highways. Unfortunately, many billboard owners regularly ignore it.
A number of the billboards that are subject to state regulation exceed the current height limit of 42½ feet, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. Ignorance is no defense since the permit application for every billboard requires the owner to certify it will comply with the height limit and other provisions.
This issue emerged in the waning days of the 2017 legislative session as part of Senate Bill 312, the must-pass legislation to allow the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to continue to operate.
As two of the Senate negotiators for Senate Bill 312, we pushed back against a hastily considered House amendment that would have allowed billboards to go up to 85 feet – double the current limit. Unable to pass a bill to increase the height limit, billboard proponents had added language to SB 312 that hadn’t been considered in a public hearing.
We weren’t willing to take that drastic step, but we struck a compromise that grandfathered existing billboards in order to dispense with a lot of costly litigation.
This deal provided relief to the industry and the state while also respecting the legislative process.
But the industry now wants more and is working hard to circumvent the Legislature to get it. 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.
There are very strong opinions on both sides of the billboard issues. To some, billboards are a blight on our beautiful landscape. To others, they’re an effective tool for economic stimulus and communication.
The industry has tried to convince the Legislature to increase or eliminate the height limit for years. While there is no magic to the current height limit, which is an arbitrary number put in place in the 1980s, the Legislature has decided every time to keep the current rule in place.
In its initial rule proposal, TxDOT went beyond the compromise we struck by essentially eliminating the height limit altogether. After we and others objected, TxDOT scaled back its proposal. Now we’re hopeful that the Texas Transportation Commission will maintain the current height limit when it adopts final rules.
You can add your voice to this debate during the public comment period, which ends Oct. 16. We hope you’ll join with us in telling TxDOT that an industry shouldn’t be able to ignore the Legislature and rewrite regulations in their favor.
Nichols, R-Jacksonville, is the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and served on the conference committee that negotiated Senate Bill 312 along with Watson, D-Austin.
By Sen. Kirk Watson & Sen. Robert Nichols