Richland takes new look at billboard issue

A controversial measure that would allow digital billboards in unincorporated Richland County returns tonight for a public hearing.

County Council dropped the issue last year, only to have it revived by newcomers Jim Manning and Gwendolyn Davis Kennedy.

During a preliminary vote in June, the measure was approved 7-4 - a margin that could be difficult for opponents to overcome.

"The question is, 'Who owns the sky, anyway?' So now they do," said Susan Brill, who led the effort in 2001 to ban new billboards in Richland County. The ban remains in place.

However, the proposal being considered tonight would allow billboard companies to replace their traditional signs with lighted billboards that change messages every six seconds.

"It's probably one of the greatest advancements in our industry in 40 or 50 years," said Scott Shockley, general manager of Lamar Advertising.

Shockley's firm owns between 170 and 180 billboards in unincorporated parts of Richland County. He said Monday he didn't know how many the company might like to convert to digital displays.

Lamar Advertising does business in about 40 states.

Among the jurisdictions where Lamar Advertising has digital billboards are Columbia, Irmo and Lexington County.

The signs also appear along South Carolina's major highways.

Though many argue digital billboards are distracting for drivers, they most often provoke arguments about aesthetics.

Ryan Nevius, chairwoman of the county's Appearance Commission, said the council should call a "round table" on signs, bringing together the various interest groups to hash out compromises not only on digital billboards but also on weekend directional signs, bus shelter ads, kiosks and on-premises signs with messages that scroll.

The council has wrestled with a variety of issues involving signs this year.