Photo: James Nielsen, Houston Chronicle
Limits on roadside billboards are back on track in Texas, after a court ruling caused uncertainty that a stream of signs could again dot state highways.
Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday signed SB 2006, sponsored by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, approving revised regulations to keep sign rules enforced by the Texas Department of Transportation in place.
“It assures that the state will continue to have a regulatory system in place to control the size, location, and lighting standards for off-premise billboards, which was put at risk,” said Margaret Lloyd, a Galveston resident and vice president of Scenic Texas, which advocates for sign regulations to limit clutter on highways.
Without approval this legislative session some worried the state could lose control of billboards and other signs along state roadways, because of a current court case.
In August, the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals struck down key segments of the state’s highway beautification act, enacted in 1974, because it inhibited free speech. The ruling followed others around the country that found states could not restrict signs based on content.
The owner of a store in Bee Cave sued the state in 2011 when it ordered him to remove a Ron Paul sign on his business property. The appeals court found the state had erred by basing the law on content.
While the state has appealed the court decision, lawmakers and sign restriction advocates feared unless changes were made the ruling could be upheld and Texas would be without a sign law until the Legislature reconvenes in January 2019.
Without a sign rule, TxDOT officials said the state could find itself out of compliance with the federal highway beautification act – coincidentally championed by Texan Lady Bird Johnson – which could cost the state $300 million annually in federal highway appropriations.
The new regulations steer the state away from rules that set different standards for signs based on content, and toward rules that deal specifically with signs erected for money. Any sign, regardless of its purpose, where the landowner is paid for displaying the sign would be subject to the same height restrictions, size limitations and other provisions in the previous law.
The bill would not restrict signs advertising a business on the property, such as a restaurant or store.
None of the rule changes, or the court case, impact local sign regulations, such as Houston’s rules on billboards and outdoor advertising. The state’s rules would only apply to state-maintained roadways outside those areas.