Im not one of those people who consider billboards a blight on the landscape, and as will become clear in a moment, this isnt actually a column about billboards. At least not entirely.
So, lets talk about why Mount Pleasant and Charleston County need to hold firm against a local companys requests to digitize six old-fashioned billboards in the town and replace a digital billboard near the county landfill in West Ashley with a smaller but much more visible one.
The conversation begins as most questions of public policy in South Carolina do at the Statehouse.
The year is 2006, Mark Sanford is governor, and the General Assembly has just passed the S.C. Landowner and Advertising Protection and Property Valuation Act, declaring that local governments may require the removal of billboards only if the ordinance requires the payment of just compensation to the sign owners.
The bill masqueraded as part of the regulatory takings movement, which is built on the idea that the U.S. Constitutions prohibition on taking private property for public use without just compensation should apply to regulations that limit the use of property.
Since the courts dont usually buy that reading, libertarians support laws that require payments when a state says people cant erode the neighbors property by erecting a new seawall. Or a county says people cant give children an education they dont need by opening a strip club next to an elementary school. Or a city tries to prevent flooding by limiting how much fill dirt a builder can use to elevate property.
But this bill wasnt a libertarian effort to rein in regulatory takings. It was just the opposite: an attempt to pick winners and losers. And it was so extreme that even our most libertarian governor ever couldnt swallow it.
The bill, Mr. Sanford wrote in his veto message, put billboard owners in a position superior to homeowners, farmers and other businesses. It did this in two ways.
First, it required owners whose billboards were forced down to be paid as if the signs were real estate, which increases in value, even though billboards are taxed like personal property, which decreases in value. When the government actually takes the property of homeowners, farmers and other businesses, through eminent domain, the payment is based on the valuation system on which its taxed.
Second, when government actually takes your land, you get paid what its worth. Billboard owners would get paid based on the amount of money their signs would generate over years or even decades to come. Thats like saying if the government makes a food truck move to a new location, it has to pay the owner all the money she would have made from the food truck staying in its old location for the next 10 or 20 years.
The Legislature quickly overrode Mr. Sanfords veto, and the bill became law, making it extraordinarily expensive to remove billboards.
Since the cost is based on the potential revenue a particular billboard could generate, it costs far more to remove a luminous electronic sign that changes several times a minute than an old-fashioned one-message-a-month billboard. So no rational local government would ever deliberately allow a digital billboard within its jurisdiction.
It might seem ironic, poetically just in fact, that in its overwrought attempt to please the billboard industry, the Legislature passed a law that encourages cities and counties to do everything they can to prevent new billboards or new billboard technology, in order to avoid getting stuck with them for eternity. In fact, its a predictable result of what seems at times like the Legislatures single-minded fixation on asserting itself as the only real power in the state of South Carolina.
This fixation means keeping the states executive branch divided among seven statewide elected officials, and keeping two-thirds of the government beyond the governors control. It means keeping the courts on a short leash. It means limiting the ability of cities and counties to raise taxes and constantly dreaming up new things to tell them they cant do. Or must do. Like paying to remove billboards something the Legislature does not require of the state Transportation Department or other state agencies. Since, even though the governor ostensibly controls a few of them, everybody knows that state agencies all work at the bidding of the Legislature.
It also means South Carolinians get stuck with one-size-fits-all government that caters to the special-interest groups with the best lobbyists in Columbia, while ordinary citizens are back home lobbying their local governments for changes those governments arent allowed to make. Because theres only room for one power in this state, and its located on the second floor of the Statehouse.
Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @cindiscoppe.
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