PHOENIX — Lobbied by the billboard industry, a House panel
voted Tuesday to allow dozens of internally illuminated billboards
along state highways to stay and allow future ones to be
HB2757 seeks to overturn last year’s ruling by the state Court
of Appeals, which concluded that state law does not authorize the
signs with their changeable messages. Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler,
who is sponsoring the measure, said all it does is restore the law
to what he said everyone assumed it had been.
But Mark Mayer, who represents Scenic Arizona, said that’s not
true, which is why he said the lawsuit was filed in the first
place. And a series of representatives from the astronomy industry
argued that allowing these signs to remain — and proliferate –
would undermine the $1.2 billion investment in the state and the
$250 million it generates in grants and funds from out of
Robson responded that cities and counties remain free to impose
their own restrictions on these type of signs or ban them outright.
That was enough to convince a majority of the Government Committee
to approve the legislation, sending the bill to the full House.
Wendy Briggs, lobbyist for Clear Channel Communications, told
lawmakers the appellate court got it wrong in concluding that the
1958 federal Highway Beautification Act and its state counterpart
approved a dozen years later prohibit digital billboards along
roads funded at least in part with federal and state dollars. And
Briggs said her company and others who have erected the 70
illuminated signs, mostly in Maricopa and Pinal counties, followed
all the proper procedures, including getting permits from
applicable government authorities.
Briggs also said there are inherent benefits to these changeable
signs, including the ability to tell passing motorists about people
wanted for kidnapping and other crimes.
Gene Gardner, a project administrator for the Smithsonian
Institute working at the Whipple Observatory in southern Arizona
told lawmakers they need to consider the fallout from these
Gardner said work is under way to land funding for the next
generation of gamma ray astronomy, a $130 million project with a
$10 million annual operating budget.
“Unfortunately, with some legislation like this, it’s just
enough to scare away astronomers,” he said, calling the digital
billboards “a killer for astronomy.” And Gardner said there is
tremendous competition for grants, with Arizona already having lost
projects to Utah and Colorado.
Elizabeth Alvarez, assistant to the director at Kitt Peak
National Observatory, said part of what makes the billboards so
problematic is that the light is emitted horizontally. She said
that creates all sorts of problems for astronomers who rely on dark
Briggs, however, said these signs emit less light pollution than
traditional billboards which are illuminated from below, shining
their lights upwards, which is the practice in much of the
industry. She also said that these signs are turned off nightly at
“Most astronomy is done in the middle of the night,” she
Rep. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, said he sees no need for a
statewide ban as long as the legislation does not preempt local
“Now we can go to the local level to make sure the rural
regions, if need be, are taken care of for the rights of the
astronomers,” he said.
But Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said that ignores how
far light pollution can spread. Meyer also said that, given the
expense of operating a telescope, telling astronomers they are free
to work after midnight does not help.
Further changes in the measure may come before the next
Rep. Steve Urie, R-Gilbert, voted for the measure but said he
wants it amended to include some limits on illumination.