Pulling apart what was a carefully crafted deal, a House panel voted Tuesday night to open up a much larger area of the state to electronic billboards.
Current law limits these signs — and the light pollution they cause — to a corridor that stretches from Phoenix west along I-10 and I-8 to the California border. The deal hammered out in 2012 made the rest of the state off limits in an effort to protect Arizona’s astronomy industry.
HB 2507 would allow the signs through most of Mohave and La Paz counties, up to the Utah border.
The push is coming from Lamar Advertising. Lobbyist Tim LaSota said his client, which was not involved in the 2012 deal, wants to erect these signs in northwest Arizona.
Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu, agreed to sponsor the measure for Lamar.
He said the area he wants to open to the billboards is not close to any of the state’s existing observatories. Anyway, he said, the billboards are at ground level; the observatories are on mountaintops.
But Angela Cotera, a physicist, told members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure that it’s not that simple.
She said light from these billboards travels out horizontally. More to the point, Cotera said, the effect of these billboards is cumulative.
“They are incredible light polluters,” Cotera said.
Borrelli was unconvinced.
“I drive that route every weekend,” he said.
“It’s pitch black out there,” Borrelli continued. “I don’t see a problem.”
Anyway, he said, it’s not fair that businesses in some areas of the state get to have these billboards while those located in his home county do not.
Cotera said the fight is about more than some businesses in Mohave County. She told lawmakers if they allow this change it opens the door to others seeking to shrink even further the “dark skies” area of the state.
Even if the measure were to become law, that does not guarantee that Lamar — or any other company — will get to erect the electronic billboards in the expanded area. The measure leaves in place existing statutes that allow individual cities, towns and counties to enact even more stringent restrictions on signs — or ban them outright.
The 2012 law came about because there was a legal question of whether they were legal in Arizona.
Billboard lobbyists got lawmakers to agree to allow them along state roads. But that plan was rejected by Gov. Jan Brewer.
In her veto message, she said the astronomy industry has invested $1.2 billion in Arizona, employs more than 3,300 workers and has an estimated economic impact of $250 million each year.
“I simply refuse to place all of this in jeopardy,” Brewer said.
The compromise carved out the slice of Arizona where such billboards would be allowed, leaving the balance of the state free of the changeable signs. It also requires that billboards be turned off at 11 p.m., with some limits on illumination, though less than the astronomy community had sought.
Cotera said if Borrelli was interested in expanding the area he should have sat down with the astronomy community and crafted a deal, just as was done in 2012. She suggested a compromise might have been possible in exchange for things like lowering the illumination levels even further.
The measure passed on a 5-3 vote, with Rep. Chris Ackerley, R-Sahuarita abstaining. Ackerley said he is sensitive to the needs of the astronomy community and wants more information before the measure goes to the full House.