State Sen. Becky Massey is preparing an amendment to SB 1760, the bill to allow billboard companies to replace existing boards with electronic/digital technology.
In an interview, Massey said she was asked to carry this bill because she sponsored a comprehensive billboard reform law two years ago. She chairs the Transportation Committee in the state Senate.
“First, SB 1760 does not allow one new billboard,” she said. “The (proposed) amendment will restrict the digital boards to interstates, not in neighborhoods.”
Knoxville will not be affected, she said, because Knoxville has a home rule charter.
Nick Della Volpe, a lawyer and eight-year member of Knoxville City Council, says not necessarily. While he does not support the bill at all, he would feel more secure with specific language to exempt home-rule municipalities.
Massey said that is not necessary because of case law. She cited a specific ruling by the Tennessee Court of Appeals in 2016.
“There’s a time and a place for outdoor signage,” she added. “It serves a purpose.”
Why is this unclear?
We asked retired Circuit Court Judge Dale Workman for background. Workman, who lives in Halls, was Knox County’s law director prior to becoming a judge.
In the beginning, so to speak, the state legislature enabled cities and counties to take specific action through private acts. These acts set local salaries and, out of sight in Nashville, were passed with little or no discussion. Some nefarious local laws resulted.
Over time, cities and counties sought to reduce state interference, leading to a state Constitutional Convention that provided for municipalities to have home rule. Voters approved the amendments in 1954, and the language was added to the state Constitution.
“This meant cities could make local laws and set salaries without going to Nashville,” said Workman. “But you must understand the notion of preemptions, i.e., once the Congress enacts a specific law then states cannot enact contrary laws, and once the state legislature enacts a law then local governments cannot enact inconsistent laws.”
Since 1954, various counties, including Knox, have adopted a charter and become home-rule counties. Davidson County and Nashville merged into a metro government. These counties can act as cities in regards to state legislation and local ordinances. Also, various lawsuits have led to a body of case law.
Workman warns: “There are gray areas. For instance, if the legislature says the speed limit for all local streets is 50 mph, preemption does not restrict city or county legislatures from lowering the limit to 30 mph, but they cannot increase it to 55. These are the things that make lawyers happy.”
One thing is certain, though. “Cities and home rule county governments cannot veto what the state legislature adopts,” said Workman. He called the conflicting positions of Massey and Della Volpe, “a semi-preemption issue.”
Workman raised another issue. Billboards that pre-existed current zoning ordinances were allowed to remain but cannot be replaced. He suggested a second amendment to clarify that the new law could not be used to escape the “grandfather” provisions – a non-conforming billboard could not be upgraded.
SB 1760 is supported by the billboard industry. It is scheduled for a hearing by the Senate State and Local government committee on Tuesday, March 8. Its House companion had been scheduled for a final vote on Feb. 17 but was deferred until March 10.
State Rep. Jason Zachary of Farragut responded to an email, saying he opposes the bill as introduced.
Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today.