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Billboards and Sign Control

A community with too many signs, signs that are too large, have too much motion, too many flashing lights, are in poor locations, are too small to read, or are so large they are overpowering, is a community that not only functions poorly (there is too much clutter, making wayfinding, instruction and identification difficult), but also looks bad. If a community looks bad, then it is a less desirable place to be—to live, work or invest in.

Scenic Michigan is interested in helping local communities developing sign ordinances that enhance community aesthetics and protect the health, safety, and welfare of residents.

Billboard Blight

We are deeply concerned with the visual pollution and safety issues caused by the creep of static and digital billboards across our state. Deep-pocked and relentless billboard industry lobbyists patrol Lansing, working to undermine Michigan’s billboard rules, circumvent laws protecting our scenic waters and woodlands, and cannibalize Michigan’s beauty. Michigan, with 16,000 billboards, is second only to Florida in this dubious category of highway and community blight.

Four states—Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont—completely ban billboards, and an increasing number of cities—including Dallas, Houston, Little Rock, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego—are imposing bans on the construction of new billboards. Some Michigan communities have enacted bans on new billboards (such as the City of Holland and City of Troy) or have expressly capped the total number of billboards permitted in the community (including the City of Ann Arbor). In addition, since 2007, the Michigan Highway Advertising Act, 1972 PA 106, caps the number of billboards along state highways. Many other places, including Grand Rapids, have trade-off schemes to encourage the removal of older billboards and reduction of the total number of billboards in the community.

For more information about how to effectively and legally regulate billboards in your Michigan community, see Chapters 9 and 11 of our Sign Guidebook. You may also want to explore our google drive of recently amended Michigan sign ordinances to see different approaches to regulating billboards.

Billboard Safety

There is compelling evidence that digital billboards pose a safety risk to drivers. While billboard companies reject the claim, it should come as no surprise that a device that is intended to distract drivers for the purpose of advertising has some negative externalities. A 2014 study that analyzed over 55,000 crashes on Michigan’s roadways found that while the total number of crashes on Michigan’s highways decreased between 2004 and 2012, crashes increased on roadways where digital billboards had been introduced. Data provided by the Michigan Department of Transportation showed that there were nine percent fewer overall crashes in 2012 compared to 2004. Yet in areas where digital billboards had gone up crash rates increased, and rates were higher the closer one got to a digital billboard. A half-mile away from digital billboards crashes increased 2.3%, while at a quarter-mile away they went up 7%, and within a tenth of a mile the crash rates rose by 7.2%. “The proportions of digital billboard-proximal traffic crashes on Michigan freeways are significantly higher ‘after’ than ‘before’ the digital billboards were installed,” said Dr. Nadiya Fink, Assistant Professor at Albion College, who analyzed the data.

Scenic America has compiled a wealth of data on the subject of billboard safety that we encourage you to read through.

Billboard Costs

When a billboard must be removed (or simply moved) for a highway project, its owner often seeks compensation far in excess of the worth of the billboard structure itself. Excess and unwarranted compensation for billboard condemnation is just one way that American taxpayers unduly subsidize the billboard industry.

In September 2013 the Minnesota Department of Transportation agreed to spend over $4.3 million in public funds for the removal of a digital billboard as part of a bridge reconstruction project.  The billboard’s removal was necessitated by a project currently underway to replace the Lafayette Bridge, which carries state highway 52 over the Mississippi River near downtown St. Paul.  Documents reveal that the state paid the billboard’s owner, Clear Channel Outdoor, $4,321,000 for the condemnation of a single digital billboard.  Clear Channel retained ownership of the billboard and is believed to have relocated the sign to Minneapolis soon after its removal.

Media coverage

News and Updates

Scenic Michigan Releases 2nd Edition of Michigan Sign Guidebook and Offers May Trainings

By Billboards and Sign Control, News

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert significantly impacted local governments’ approach to sign regulation. The case’s application of the content neutrality doctrine rendered most of the local sign regulations in Michigan unconstitutional. Recent Sixth Circuit court decisions challenge local governments’ ability to continue with longstanding modes…

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Purchase Our Award-winning Sign Guidebook

This Michigan Sign Guidebook addresses local planning and regulation of nearly all types of exterior signs.

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