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 erected.
HB 2757 seeks to overturn a ruling last year 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 state.
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 signs.
Gardner said work is underway 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 skies.
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 11 p.m.
"Most astronomy is done in the middle of the night,' she said.
Rep. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, said he sees no need for a statewide ban as long as the legislation does not preempt local rules.
"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 step.
Rep. Steve Urie, R-Gilbert, voted for the measure but said he wants it amended to include some limits on illumination.