PHOENIX (WTW) — Astronomers and billboard companies are at odds over legislation that would lift a state ban on electronic billboards and put them under local government control.
Billboard companies are asking the Legislature to change the law after a recent decision by the Arizona Court of Appeals that bans electronic billboards along freeways. The Arizona Senate approved the bill on a 20-8 vote Wednesday. It now goes to Gov. Jan Brewer.
Professional astronomers argue that billboards threaten the dark skies needed for their work, which they said brings a major economic benefit to Arizona.
The legislation was introduced after a November 2011 ruling by the Arizona Court of Appeals that found the electronic billboards violate a state law concerning outdoor advertising along interstates and highways. The ruling threatened about 70 existing billboards.
Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, sponsored the measure, claiming it is needed to recognize the changing technology in the outdoor advertising industry and ensure that the existing billboards are permitted. Robson said 40 other states have adopted similar laws related to electronic billboards.
“I’m not trying to put an industry out of business,” Robson said about the astronomers’ concerns, but he added that the billboard industry is also important to the state. Robson said the dark skies needed by the astronomy community will still be protected with by city and county regulations.
Electronic billboards are also “critical tools,” for the state because they can quickly display Amber Alerts to passing motorists, said Robert Johnson, a spokesman for CBS Outdoor, one of the major billboard companies in the state.
Johnson said the legislation will not impede the ability of professional astronomers to view the night sky. He said the observatories are trying to use the court ruling as an opening to push for a ban on the billboards.
“I don’t think that anyone would believe that those 70 boards are putting an end to astronomy as we know it,” he said.
There are no electronic billboards near the observatories, and there never will be because local rules wouldn’t allow them, said Wendy Briggs, a lobbyist who represents Clear Channel Outdoor Inc., another major billboard company.
“There are plenty of current protections in the local laws for the observatories,” she said.
Local restrictions are very helpful, but light pollution beyond those areas is already a problem for astronomers, said Paul Shankland, director of U.S. Naval Observatory at Flagstaff. Shankland said no one billboard or traffic light causes a problem, but astronomers have to be proactive because encroachment on their ability to see the sky “is often death by a thousand cuts,” he said.
Shankland said dark skies are critical to his agency, which is tasked with, among other objectives, watching out for objects orbiting Earth that could threaten satellites and other equipment.
“They could easily destroy things as big as the International Space Station,” he said. “If we can’t see them, then we’ve got a problem. If there’s light pollution in the night sky, then it makes it very difficult.”
Democrats unsuccessfully fought to add a provision to the bill that bars the billboards within 75 miles of an observatory. Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, a Phoenix Democrat, called the 75-mile ban “very reasonable,” and ensures the astronomers’ work is not disrupted. The changes would also protect the jobs of 3,000 people who work in the industry, she said.
Sen. John McComish, an Ahwatukee Republican, said that a 75-mile restriction would effectively be a statewide ban on all electronic billboards.
Shankland, with the Naval Observatory, said he feels 75 miles is “modest,” and he’s concerned about the impact the bill will have. The astronomy industry is becoming a very important part of the nation’s technological power, and Arizona is one of the last “astronomy-friendly states,” he said.
“It is very difficult to find that niche anymore in this country,” he said.
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