County would take step back if it OKs digital billboards

FOR THE SECOND time in less than a month, Richland County Council is contemplating going against its own established wisdom as well as public sentiment to make an exception to existing county law.

For the second time in less than a month, it should reverse itself and nix the proposed change.

A few weeks ago, the council thought better of creating an exception in its public smoking ban that would have allowed any business - including bars and restaurants - to create designated smoking areas where employees would serve patrons. Today, the council is on the verge of opening unincorporated areas to digital billboards.

There's no compelling reason for the council to allow billboard companies to erect the bright, large distractions. Several years ago, the council showed courage and an uncommon political will when it passed an ordinance banning any new traditional billboards in unincorporated areas. That move, in response to citizens' desire to control blight, established a higher standard for Richland County, well above where other communities have been willing to go.

While many residents are equally concerned about digital billboards as they are the regular ones, there's an even more important reason for the county to resist billboard companies' efforts to change the law: If the county allows the new signs, any attempt to get them taken down in the future will be next to impossible - and extremely expensive.

That's because under state law, cities and counties that require companies to remove billboards must pay owners what they would lose by not being able to rent out their space, possibly for as long as 20 years. The high-tech digital signs are very expensive and generate much more revenue than regular billboards. That could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars - per billboard.

If the council OKs digital billboards, it'll essentially increase the value of all existing billboards. That would reduce the likelihood of the county ever requiring any billboard, no matter the problem it's causing, to be moved or removed for fear of putting too much liability on taxpayers. The answer? Don't allow the signs.

While billboard companies argue, among other things, that the sings would allow them to help companies grow their business, it's not the county's job to ensure private companies succeed. Also, claims that this will help facilitate Amber Alerts and other public service announcements, while admirable, are hardly reason enough to make such a drastic change in county law. Many enterprises have positive aspects that, in the long run, are outweighed by the negative consequences.

In addition to protecting its strong ban on new traditional billboards and ensuring that it not make it cost prohibitive to get signs removed should the need arrive, the council must consider public sentiment against these electronic boards. Many residents understandably are concerned the signs aren't aesthetically pleasing, emit light pollution and distract drivers.

County Council could give final approval to allowing digital billboards today. There are a couple of options on the table, but it's best that the council rejects even minimal encroachment of digital billboards in the unincorporated areas. This is a door best kept shut.