The forces of dark are squaring off against the forces of light in a battle over billboard legislation.
On the side of light — as in vivid, flashing color — is the electronic-billboard industry. It is pushing a bill that would make 70 existing digital billboards along Arizona’s highways legal in the wake of a state Court of Appeals ruling.
The forces of darkness are led by Arizona’s observatories and astronomy industry. They want a statewide standard to ensure “dark skies” protections for areas within a 75-mile radius of observatories.
Their battlefield is House Bill 2757, which is awaiting debate in the Senate. It has already won House approval.
Billboard companies approached lawmakers for a change to state law after the Appeals Court last fall ruled electronic billboards did not comply with the state’s ban on intermittent light. The constantly changing messages on digital billboards produce varying flashes of light vs. the steady stream of light that illuminates traditional boards.
HB 2757, sponsored by Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, would legalize the billboards by permitting messages that display for at least eight seconds, with a maximum two-second transition time to the next ad.
Astronomy backers rallied when they realized the bill would effectively lift the ban on digital billboards, both current and future, releasing even more light into the night skies.
They saw the court ruling as a chance to ensure a statewide standard rather than relying on a patchwork of local regulations — even though they admit many of those local rules have minimized the glowing light that hampers their work.
However, “we’re already pushing the limits,” said Jeffrey Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Besides, local ordinances only extend to city or county boundaries; light can travel far beyond those limits, he said.
A statewide standard would make it easier to convince government and private-sector groups interested in siting observatories in Arizona that dark-sky guidelines will not vary, Hall said.
“It is not only protecting dark skies, it is the commitment from the state of Arizona that your nine-figure investment is safe with us,” he said.
Arizona is in the running to attract the Cherenkov Telescope Array, a $130 million project that would be located in northern Arizona. A bill allowing electronic billboards along Arizona highways would send a negative signal, Hall said, and could persuade the multinational consortium pushing the array to move to one of the other competitors: China, India, Mexico or Spain.
But Wendy Briggs, who represents one of the state’s largest billboard companies, said the concern over legalizing the 70 existing digital billboards is much ado about nothing.
“It’s light that’s there already,” said Briggs, who represents Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. Astronomers are training their telescopes on the heavens and doing their work even as the billboards have been broadcasting their illuminated messages, she said. The boards have been allowed to keep operating in the wake of the court ruling.
She downplayed suggestions that, if the bill becomes law, electronic billboards would proliferate along state highways near observatory sites.
Flagstaff, Tucson and Marana, as well as Coconino and Pima counties, have rules on the books to limit urban light pollution and protect dark skies. Given the role astronomy plays in those economies, Briggs said, it’s hard to believe local governments would roll back rules that protect the industry. The bill would not overrule more-stringent local laws.
But Hall is not so sure.
“A lot of the ordinances that are in place are fairly old, written before LEDs existed,” he said, referring to the lights commonly used in electronic billboards. Those rules might not protect against the newer billboards, he said.
Observatory officials have papered lawmakers with pleas to accept amendments to the bill that would create protection zones of 75 miles around any observatory as well as limit the amount of light allowed by digital billboards.
The Discovery Channel, which is building a new telescope southeast of Flagstaff near Happy Jack, told lawmakers that the limits would help ensure dark skies. Its imaging camera “will be sensitive to even minute increases in sky glow.”
So far, those appeals have failed.
Republicans, who control the majority in the Senate, slowed down the bill’s speedy passage. They are scheduled to discuss it today.Jeffrey Hall, electronic billboards, Wendy Briggs, state Court of Appeals ruling, billboard companies, Arizona highways <BR/>