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Cape May County Dodged 2 Bullets – For Now

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By Herald Staff

Middle Township Zoning Board rejected two separate applications in July for large, digital billboards, one on Stone Harbor Boulevard entering Stone Harbor and the other meant for Route 47, in Rio Grande, on the way into Wildwood.  

Some at the board meeting questioned whether they need to do more and if they need a policy on how to approach billboard use. 

The applications before the zoning officials were a sign that outdoor advertisers, one of whom was headquartered on the West Coast, are seeing the potential value of advertising on roads that take hundreds of thousands of cars each year across from the mainland to the Cape May County island resorts. 

The Middle Township municipal code defines a billboard as “a sign which directs attention to a business, commodity, service, or entertainment conducted, sold or offered at a location other than the location in which the sign is located.” Later in the code, the municipality lists billboards as prohibited signs. 

Certainly, an imperative for the local communities, both mainland and island, is to prevent visual blight. The question is to what extent does local government have the power to prohibit privately owned billboards on roads and highways? On this question, the courts have been active. 

Going back to the 1920s, the Supreme Court has issued decisions on cases involving limitations of billboard locations and messaging. As late as this year, the court ruled on a case from Austin, Texas, where an outdoor advertiser claimed a right to digitize existing billboards as a right guaranteed by free speech.  

The court ruled in favor of the city ordinance, but the case is further evidence that litigation over the right to construct and use billboards, especially the very popular digital variety first introduced in 2005, is ever-present.   

Billboards have become a very lucrative form of away-from-home advertising. Some statistics help explain why. Americans spent more than half their day outside the home and surveys show 96% of them are exposed to some form of out-of-home advertising while driving, mostly individual establishments with their own signage, but increasingly they also view billboard advertising. 

According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, spending on outdoor advertising, especially on digital billboards, is seeing record quarterly increases. Political spending is among the fastest growing areas, along with an emerging market for cannabis businesses. 

This billboard segment of out-of-home advertising has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, with hundreds of thousands of billboards in operation. The fact that one of the applicants before the Middle Township Zoning Board was Pacific Outdoor Advertising is telling. It has been, until now, a company entirely focused on the West Coast. 

The courts have held that billboards are open to considerable government regulation. Protecting aesthetic value is seen as an important function of local government. 

What some argued before the Middle Township Zoning Board was that local municipalities should proceed with care, establishing defensible regulations. It was a message being sent to more than one municipality’s officials. 

Seasonal traffic on selected roads in Cape May County makes the area a potentially prime one for out-of-home advertisers looking to expand their inventory of locations. Some individuals voicing opinions at the Middle Township meeting were urging that the county, not just the municipality, be well prepared for court challenges. 

These lighted billboards, resembling massive television screens 45 feet in the air, hulking over passersby, with ever-changing messages 24/7/365, are totally inconsistent with the bucolic magic of the shore. Visitors might think they’re heading into Atlantic City, as opposed to one of our quaint shore towns.  

We have graciously been granted a wake-up call. Local zoning is currently unprepared for what the courts could mandate. We need zoning in place prior to receiving another such billboard application, which is crafted with an eye to take advantage of free-speech rights under the First Amendment. 

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