Panel Backs Lower-Light Billboards in Northwest Arizona
Arizona Daily Sun
By Howard Fischer
February 7, 2017
PHOENIX - A Senate panel agreed Monday to allow electronic billboards in northwest Arizona after its chief proponent agreed to extensive limits, not only on what can be erected there but what will happen in the future throughout the state.
The version of SB 1114 that cleared the Senate Committee on Commerce and Public Safety would allow just 35 such internally illuminated signs with changing messages in an arc stretching from 60 miles north, east and south from Laughlin, Nev. Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, also agreed to caps on the level of illumination that is at least a third less than what's permitted elsewhere where such signs are allowed.
But the measure has potential statewide implications.
It requires companies to make "all commercially reasonable efforts to use modern and state of the art technology'' to limit light pollution from all types of billboards, not just electronic ones. And firms that already have electronic signs where they are now allowed are required, "to the extent possible,'' to replace lights "with new and advanced technology to decrease the artificial sky glow.''
Sabrina Vazquez, lobbyist for the University of Arizona, said it was that concession by lawmakers to add the new language which enables her school to agree not to try to kill the bill - even if the verbiage requires only "commercially reasonable efforts'' and even if it does not immediately force billboard companies to do anything about the light pollution they now cause.
"The legislative intent language is vital to establish a long-term goal to reduce artificial light in our sky,'' she told lawmakers, saying that light pollution has an economic effect on astronomy in general and the UA in particular.
"Our professional observatories attract significant financial contributions from outside the state,'' Vazquez said. "U of A astronomy program has brought in $100 million a year for the last 12 years.''
And Jeffrey Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory, whose opposition helped sideline last year's legislation, called that new language "critical.'' He said major changes will be coming as lighting sources convert from current technology to things like light-emitting diodes.
"This is an opportunity for us to construct a model solution that is effective, efficient (and) works for all the constituents,'' Hall said.
Potential political problems remain.
The new language has the blessing of Lamar Outdoor, the company that convinced Borrelli to sponsor the legislation so it could construct electronic billboards in the area.
But John Clements, lobbyist for Up Front Media, another billboard company, said he has "serious concerns'' with the new proposed limits and may seek changes in the language. And that could pull apart the deal.
Existing law permits electronic billboards in a swath from the Phoenix metro area west to Yuma. That 2012 deal specifically made these signs off-limits in the rest of the state.
Borrelli, on behalf of Lamar, said there's no reason to block such signs in northwest Arizona. He argued it is sufficiently far from any observatory to not cause problems for astronomers.
Last year he proposed allowing unlimited billboards throughout Mohave County.
That failed to get necessary votes. So he came back this year with the 60-mile radius and a cap of 50 signs.
Even that drew opposition. So on Monday Borrelli agreed to even lower illumination limits and a 35-sign cap.
That helped blunt opposition. But the real key was that new language designed to ensure that as new signs are built and old ones are retrofitted, the illumination on and in the signs is enough only to convey the message and not interfering with the state's dark skies.
"We're not against light,'' said astronomer Elizabeth Alvarez.
"But don't waste it or cause harm by how you use it,'' she continued. "If the goal of outdoor advertising is a direct message to the audience, then both an excess of light and misdirection are damaging. Put the light where it's needed, not in the sky.