Knox County Commission held the first of at least two public meetings Monday on the subject of regulating billboards.
Commissioner Richard Briggs is proposing changing the county's current laws in three ways.
First he proposes a ban on any new billboards in the county. This would not remove existing billboards.
Secondly, he wants to ban the conversion of traditional vinyl billboards to digital.
Finally commission is considering banning electronic message centers (EMC) such as the lighted scrolling signs advertising deals outside of pharmacies.
Commission instituted a temporary moratorium on any new billboards several years ago but are now promising a permanent decision.
Most of the people who spoke in favor of the proposal were private citizens concerned about preserving the beauty of Knox County and the distraction billboards and lighted signs can pose to drivers.
Most of the people against the ban represented the billboard industry.
They told commissioners that changing the rules permanently will eliminate jobs and restrict growth in their industry.
President of Scenic Knoxville Joyce Feld supported the ban calling billboards a "crisis of visual blight."
She says she believes "beauty is good for business," in response to the argument that billboards promote local industry.
Others spoke about the negative impact of billboards on property values, with one man noting that THE industry "makes a lot of money for few people," but harms many economically with their presence.
Gary Douglas, who has been in the outdoor advertising business for about 40 years, disagrees. He started working in outdoor advertising in the '70s, first as a manager for Lamar and then running his own business. He says billboards support commerce.
"I understand that people freely buy the product and the tourists who drive through Knoxville freely respond to that," said Douglas.
He calls the proposals "job killing legislation," and predicts that if commissioners keep the private sector from putting up more billboards the state will take advantage of the demand and increase their own roadside advertising.
Lamar Advertising represents the largest billboard provider in Knox County with about 84 traditional billboards exclusively in the county, six of them electronic, according to General Manager Brian Conley.
Before the meeting Monday, Commissioner R. Larry Smith said he was still on the fence.
"We're here in beautiful East Tennessee, we've got the rolling hills here that everybody likes," said Smith, but he points out other cities boast similar attractions. "What are they doing? I'd like to find out."
Smith says he also wants to hear more about how the industry anticipates evolving.
"Do they foresee in six to seven 10 years, that everything is going to be digital?"asked Smith. "If I close my eyes and every billboard in Knoxville was digital I don't know that I could stand that. "
Ability to adapt to the market was one point Elevation Outdoor Advertising owner Martin Daniel made.
Some cautioned commissioners that banning new billboards will ultimately diminish their current numbers as property changes hands over time.
Daniel says the industry needs the ability to follow people and development.
Commissioners have scheduled another public input meeting for October 29 at 5:30 p.m. at the City County Building in downtown Knoxville.