Central and Western Arizona will be wide open for illuminated billboards with changing messages under the terms of a deal hammered out Tuesday between sign owners and the astronomy community.
A draft map of the plan creates what amounts to buffer zones around the state’s existing observatories where no new signs of this type would be allowed. In essence, it protects all of Arizona north of New River, making the entire northern tier of the state a “dark sky” zone for the brightly lit internally lighted signs.
Also off limits would be areas east of the Phoenix metro area, with protections extending to Cochise and Pima counties.
What’s left, however, are long stretches of I-10 and I-8 from Casa Grande and Phoenix and all the way to the California border.
Most immediately, that leaves in place the 70 existing signs, virtually all of which are outside the protected zones. The one exception is a billboard near Picacho Peak which will be “grandfathered” and allowed to remain.
The deal also includes a requirement for the billboards that remain -- and those yet to come -- to be turned off at 11 p.m. And there are some limits on the level of illumination, though they are brighter than the astronomy community had sought.
Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, who had tried to overturn an appellate court ruling on the billboards, was among those spearheading Tuesday’s result.
Robson was firm heading in that certain areas of the state needed to be off limits to the signs with their changing messages. And Robson said signs elsewhere should have limits on both illumination levels as well as the firm 11 p.m. shutoff, both of which he said would accommodate the astronomy community.
But prior to Tuesday’s action, Mark Mayer of Scenic Arizona, which successfully fought the legality of the signs in the first place, dismissed what Robson ideas as no real compromise at all.
Before Tuesday’s outcome, the astronomy community appeared to have the upper hand. That was because Gov. Jan Brewer last month vetoed Robson’s original industry-sought measure which would have spelled out that these signs are legal. More to the point, that legislation would have overturned last year’s decision by the state Court of Appeals which concluded the 70 illuminated signs already erected on state roads, with state permission, are illegal and have to be torn down, and that no more can be built.
But there also is some potential pressure on foes of the billboards to reach a deal.
The industry is seeking review by the Arizona Supreme Court of that appellate ruling. And if the high court overturns that decision, it could provide license to billboard companies to erect even more such signs.
Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said his boss, who vetoed the original industry-backed plan, wanted something worked out.
“She wants to see a compromise that protects and preserve the astronomy industry in Arizona while also making accommodations for another important business, that of the billboard industry,” he said.
Benson said, though, Brewer does not have a specific position on whether more of the illuminated signs should be allowed to be erected.
“That’s the subject of the talks that are still ongoing,” he said.
Benson said Brewer’s concerns included “specific protections for the observatories.” But he also said the governor wants to make allowances for “new technology in the billboard industry.”